Escaped Nuns

True Womanhood and the Campaign Against Convents in Antebellum America

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Cassandra L. Yacovazzi
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Catholic women religious occupy a curious place in both historiography and the history of the United States. These women are simultaneously part of, and separate from, mainstream culture. This can be a confusing, liminal state that, at times, renders their lives unintelligible to contemporaries and historians alike, and the unfortunate result is that they are often absent from broader scholarly accounts of the past.

Cassandra L. Yacovazzi does a wonderful job of centering nuns in the political and social history of the 19th-century US in Escaped Nuns: True Womanhood and the Campaign Against Convents in Antebellum America. The author demonstrates convincingly that the reaction to these Catholic women by non-Catholic Americans in the antebellum era—and beyond—played formative roles in shaping gender norms, public schooling, politics, ideas about sexuality, and abolitionism in heretofore-underappreciated ways.

Yacovazzi focuses primarily on early 19th-century convent narrative, a genre blending Gothic elements with anti-Catholic and nativist themes, many of which were bestsellers in this period of a burgeoning popular publishing industry. This topic will be familiar to antebellum scholars and historians of US Catholicism who have studied Maria Monk’s alleged escape from Montreal’s Hotel Dieu nunnery, and the burning of the Charlestown (Massachusetts) Ursuline convent in 1834. Yacovazzi notes that Escaped Nuns “draws heavily from the contributions of Jenny Franchot, Marie Anne Pagliarini and Tracy Fessenden on the subject of gender and anti-Catholicism in early America” (xxi). While she is not rejecting the important work of these scholars, Yacovazzi’s book is exceptional in moving past the antebellum framework that typifies scholarship on convent narratives and anti-Catholicism. Escaped Nuns indeed extends this analysis into the 20th century. Also, unlike previous works on the subject, Yacovazzi focuses less on Protestant conceptions of Catholics—the attraction/revulsion dialectic which Franchot explores in Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism (University of California Press, 1994)—and more on the Catholic women and convents themselves. Catholic women, therefore, become subjects rather than objects, an important contribution in its own right to the work of de-marginalizing Catholicism in US historiography.

Yacovazzi’s thesis is straightforward: “[n]uns,” she argues, “were a barometer of American attitudes toward women. The image of the veiled nun appeared as the inversion of the true woman needed to sustain the nation” (xxii). Americans were increasingly interested in policing gender roles as well as the contours of vital community and political institutions. The convent tales fueled the intense and often violent manifestations of anti-Catholicism in the 19th century, helping non-Catholics to work out their conceptions of womanhood and making nuns decidedly at-odds with the notion of the proper woman as a “married mother.” These nuns—who lived and worked autonomously, who were celibate, and who did not submit to the authority of a husband—represented to many that Catholics were an intolerable presence in the United States. The anti-Catholic attack on nuns and convents thus reinforced patriarchal norms, strengthened insider and outsider social boundaries, and shaped the idea of what it meant to be a member of a free, republican nation.

The most exciting sections of Yacovazzi’s book are those that turn from the more familiar discussions of Monk, the Charlestown convent burning, and the Catholic-Protestant Bible Wars of the 1840s, and instead focus on the intriguing connections between anti-Catholicism and other trends in antebellum politics and culture—namely abolitionism, urban crime and vice, and anti-Mormonism. The author formulates an original line of analysis that not only draws parallels between anti-Catholic convent narratives and antislavery works, but also demonstrates how these genres, and the political and social movements they represented, intersected with one another. For those with both anti-Catholic and abolitionist commitments, “the plantation and the convent, the planter and the priest, the slave woman and the nun … proved conveniently interchangeable” (54). Both slavery and convents, critics charged, acted as deformations of well-ordered marital relations, motherhood, and domesticity.

While Yacovazzi’s chapter on the similarities between convent narratives and the increasingly popular city mystery genre is well rendered, I did not find it as convincing as the preceding chapter on antislavery literature. Yacovazzi does a superb job analyzing the convent and city mystery accounts, but one question lingered for me: although they have similar rhetoric and styles, are convent narratives and city mysteries actually connected? Throughout this chapter, the author posits parallels between the two genres, between the characters of the sinister priest and the conman, and between the images of the nun and the prostitute, but with the exception of works by Ned Buntline, and George Lippard’s 1845 book, The Quaker City, or, The Monks of Monk Hall, the genres seem similar rather than interconnected.

The chapter covering the 19th-century campaign against polygamy, however, is on more secure footing when establishing connections between anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism. The lesser-known genre of anti-Mormon escape narratives, Yacovazzi argues, clearly drew inspiration from its anti-Catholic forebear. Anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon campaigns were often led by the same people. For instance, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), variously wrote against both convents and polygamy. Coupled with her better-known anti-slavery writing, Stowe represents the intersection of three powerful political movements of the 19th century: abolitionism, anti-convent, and anti-polygamy. Yacovazzi ably describes the common threads tying together these movements: “[a]s with anti-Catholicism, and especially the campaign against convents, anti-Mormonism was about many things in addition to religion. The obsession with polygamy reflected deep-seated concerns about women, sex, gender, and the home, and the subsequent consequences for the nation” (110-11). Women as both the progenitors and wards of the nation was a fundamental tension at the heart of American-ness, and both nuns and Mormon women challenged, and at times shattered, the prevalent cult of domesticity—rendering both groups of women as simultaneously dangerous and victimized in the popular discourse.

The anti-convent wave crested in the 1850s with the controversial work of the Massachusetts Nunnery Committee (MNC), the history of which has been relatively muted in previous scholarship on anti-Catholicism. This Know-Nothing-dominated government endeavor represented a dramatic incursion of state government into the affairs of private religious institutions and residences, allowing public officials, and even some private citizens, to intrude on private property and inspect the nuns’ personal quarters and belongings. Yacovazzi discusses the Committee’s work in a terrific final chapter and argues persuasively that while much of the public turned against the disturbing behavior of the MNC and some of its members, the Committee “only reflected the demands of large sectors of the American people,” who had come to see Catholicism, more broadly, and nuns and convents more narrowly, as pervasive, dangerous enemies of American republicanism and domestic femininity (142).

Escaped Nuns is a very welcome contribution to a field of study that has had a strong need for a book-length examination of convent narratives and the image of the 19th-century nun in popular culture. Yacovazzi points the way towards a number of potentially-fruitful lines of inquiry. Continued comparisons between anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism would be most useful, as would a more detailed look at the 20th-century history of convent narratives, which is mentioned only briefly in the Epilogue. The author’s analysis reinvigorates scholarship on anti-Catholicism, and it is also a pleasure to read. This work is highly recommended for popular and scholarly audiences.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William S. Cossen is a member of the faculty of The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology, and is the online book review editor for the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

Date of Review: 
August 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cassandra L. Yacovazzi is Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Florida-Sarasota-Manatee. Her research focuses on American cultural, religious, and gender history in the nineteenth century.


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