Maria MonkROBERT P. LOCKWOOD
Anti-Catholic newspapers were flourishing in the United States by the mid-1830s thanks to the wide appeal of a new genre: convent horror stories.
First published in 1836, the Awful Disclosures would sell hundreds of thousands of copies in an America barely 50 years old. It would become the most famous anti-Catholic work ever written in the United States.
Mistrust and downright hatred of Catholics and Catholicism, was widespread in colonial America. The American Revolution helped calm much of it, primarily through the young nation's alliance with Catholic France. After the Revolution, a Catholic community numbering barely 30,000 souls would generally be left alone.
But in the 1820s, anti-Catholicism began to resurface. There was a reawakening of a fundamentalist Protestantism that replaced the more tolerant attitude popular among American leaders at the time of the Revolution. Coupled with it was a growing resentment against the poor immigrants who were starting to crowd Eastern cities, many of them coming from Catholic Ireland. The ever-increasing public presence of Catholics was helping re-ignite anti Catholic sentiments.
The time was ripe for Maria Monk's anti-Catholic blockbuster.
Born in Canada, Monk claimed in her Awful Disclosures that she was raised a good Protestant girl and entered the convent school at the Hotel Dieu in Montreal for her education. Impressed by the appearance of holiness of the sisters, she decided to convert to Catholicism and become a nun.
(Her mother told a different story, claiming Monk's problems began when her daughter stuck a pencil into her head as a child. By the time Monk was a teen, her mother could no longer control her wild daughter and had her committed to a Catholic asylum in Montreal. She said the girl had never been a Catholic and had never been inside the Hotel Dieu.)
According to Maria Monk's version of her biography, after making her vows she was forcibly introduced to her main responsibilities as a nun: serving the perverse sexual needs of Catholic priests. She alleged that babies created by these unions were killed, and she said she had discovered a gruesome cemetery in the convent's basement where the tiny bodies were buried, along with the young nuns who refused to take part in the perversion.
Monk claimed a "Father Phelan" had gotten her pregnant and, fearing the murder of her own child, she fled the convent.
That was where the first edition of the Awful Disclosures ended. It was an immediate sensation and was followed by a second edition.
In that one, Monk picked up her tale of escape from the convent. She wrote of her attempts at suicide and, finally, her arrival in the United States. She told how, pregnant and near starvation, she was rescued by hunters at the outskirts of New York, and how when she told her terrible story to a Protestant clergyman, he encouraged her to write her autobiography.
All great stuff for anti-Catholic readers.
In reality, it appears Monk had taken off from a Catholic asylum with the help of her former lover, who was the likely father of her child. In New York, she hooked up with a few clergymen who saw the opportunity to make an anti-Catholic statement and a few bucks. It appears that the Rev. J. J. Slocum of New York was the actual author of the Awful Disclosures.
These ministers approached the publishing house of Harper Brothers with Monk's story. It set up a dummy corporation to actually publish the book, unwilling perhaps to have its reputation sullied with a salacious tale not for polite ears. The book was released in January 1836.
It created an immediate storm. Hugely successful, it received rave reviews in the contemporary Protestant press and was cited as an accurate picture of convent life. The small Catholic community protested loudly, claiming the whole story was a hoax.
As the controversy grew over Monk's veracity, two Protestant clergymen went to Canada to inspect the Hotel Dieu convent. When they reported that the convent was nothing like Monk's description, they were accused of being Jesuits in disguise. When another prominent Protestant journalist also investigated the convent and denounced Monk as a fraud, he was charged with taking Jesuit money.
Monk's behavior did not help her cause. She disappeared in August 1837 and resurfaced in Philadelphia, claiming she had been kidnapped by priests. She had actually taken off under an assumed name with another man.
While this indiscretion seemed to discredit her with some, there were many Americans still willing to accept her tale. In 1837, she published another book claiming that pregnant nuns from the United States and Canada lived on an island in the St. Lawrence River.
That book marked the end of Maria Monk's literary career. Her popularity began to fade, while lawsuits to attempt to recover some of the profits from her earlier books publicly revealed much of the corruption behind the whole story.
In 1838, she became pregnant again and most discarded her charge that it was a Catholic plot to discredit her. She married, but her drinking and carousing forced her husband to abandon her. In 1849, she was arrested for pickpocketing at a house of prostitution, and she died in prison a short time later.
In 1874, Mrs. L. St. John Eckel published a book in which she claimed to be Monk's daughter from her last liaison. It told of Eckel's conversion to Catholicism. While the book included a little bit about Monk's final days, the work was primarily a vigorous defense of the author's Catholic faith.
Then, as now, Monk's anti-Catholic classic was still in print. In fact, there has scarcely been a time since its first publication when Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal hasn't been available. Pornographic versions have been published, as well as toned-down efforts for more sensitive eyes. It's quite likely the book has sold millions of copies in the United States.
Small-time anti-Catholic publishers still have active editions of the Awful Disclosures on their lists. These days a hardcover edition sells for $35.95.
Editor's Note: For a more detailed exploration of this case see: The Real Maria Monk by J. Bernard Delany, O.P.
Robert P. Lockwood. "Maria Monk." Catholic Heritage (November/December 1996): 19-21.
Reprinted with permission of Our Sunday Visitor and the author.
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Robert P. Lockwood, a former president of Our Sunday Visitor publishing, is now communications director for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Anti-Catholicism in American Culture (Our Sunday Visitor, $19.95).
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