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Artifact: Killer Priests

Findings from the streets, files, and hard drives of New York.

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Excerpts from Awful Disclosures by Maria Monk, published by Hoisington and Trow of New York in 1836. A first edition of the book is currently on view as part of the “Catholics in New York 1808–1946” exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York.


During the 1800s, anti-Catholicism was a growth industry. One piece of particularly popular (and entirely fabricated) propaganda was Maria Monk’s memoir, which purported to depict her two years in a Montreal convent. Monk wrote that priests used torture and intimidation to hold sway over nuns, whom they kept as sex slaves. (She claimed that eighteen to twenty infant offspring of these trysts were killed during her time in Montreal.) Below are three passages from Awful Disclosures; the first two are details intended to cast the Church in an occultish light, while the third describes a method of covering up venereal diseases.

CHAPTER IX
(excerpted)
“Private Signal of the Priests”
When a stray priest is shut out of the Seminary, or is otherwise put to the need of seeking a lodging, he is always sure of being admitted to the black nunnery. Nobody but a priest or the physician can ring the bell at the sick-room door; much less can any others gain admittance. The pull of the bell is entirely concealed, somewhere on the outside of the gate, I have been told.

He makes himself known as a priest by a peculiar kind of hissing sound, made by the tongue against the teeth, while they are kept closed, and the lips open. The nun within, who delays to open the door, until informed what kind of an applicant is there, immediately recognizes the signal, and replies with two inarticulate sounds, such as are often used instead of yes, with the mouth closed.

CHAPTER XIX
(excerpted)
“The Priests of the District of Montreal have free access to the Black Nunnery—Crimes committed and required by them”
We were sometimes invited to put ourselves to voluntary sufferings in a variety of ways, not for a penance, but to show our devotion to God. A priest would sometimes say to us—

“Now, which of you have love enough for Jesus Christ to stick a pin through your cheeks?”

Some of us would signify our readiness, and immediately thrust one through up to the head. Sometimes he would propose that we should repeat the operation several times on the spot; and the cheeks of a number of nuns would be bloody.

CHAPTER XVI
(excerpted)
“Frequency of the Priests’ Visits to the Nunnery—Their Holy Retreat”
It is a frequent subject of remark, that such or such a Father is on a “holy retreat.” This is a term which conveys the idea of a religious seclusion from the world for sacred purposes. On the re-appearance of the priest after such a period, in the church or the streets, it is natural to feel a peculiar impression of his devout character—an impression very different from that conveyed to the mind of one who knows matters as they really are.

The priests are liable, by their dissolute habits, to occasional attacks of disease, which render it necessary, or at least prudent, to submit to medical treatment.

In the Black Nunnery they find private accommodations, for they are free to enter one of the private hospitals whenever they please; which is a room set apart on purpose for the accommodation of the priests, and is called a retreat-room. But an excuse is necessary to blind the public, and this they find is the pretence that they make of being in a “Holy Retreat.”


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