The name of Maria Monk is widely known in anti-Catholic circles as the supposed author of a book, published in January, 1836 and entitled Awful Disclosures, which described details about her life in a convent, the Hotel Dieu in Montreal, where she claimed nuns were having sexual relations with priests who entered the convent through a secret tunnel from their neighboring seminary, and that the babies born of these encounters were baptized and then killed and dumped in a mas grave in the basement of the convent. This book was widely circulated in the last century, and unfortunately has appeared many times in recent decades, despite losing all credibility when it’s story was first investigated. This writer has seen a copy of the book on sale in England as recently as last year (2000).
It is the purpose of this essay, therefore, to show the truth once again of the Maria Monk and the “Awful Disclosures” which she purportedly wrote about.
Maria Monk was born on June 1, 1816, probably in St. John’s, Quebec, Canada, to a Protestant family. She grew up in Montreal. Little is known for certain of her early life, but she reportedly suffered a childhood head injury that led to some sort of intermittent mental derangement throughout the rest of her life. She worked as a servant girl until her promiscuity brought her to the Magdalen Asylum, a Catholic asylum for prostitutes, from which she was subsequently discharged in 1834 when she was discovered to be pregnant.. There is a testimony of the matron of this asylum in the links section below. She then formed a liaison with the Reverend William K. Hoyt (or Hoyte), head of the nativist Canadian Benevolent Association and a fanatical anti-Catholic.
This book is entirely a work of fiction. In actual fact, Maria Monk was never in any convent. An affidavit written by her mother after the publication of Awful Disclosures testified that Maria was “uncontrollable and subject to wild fantasies”. It is also true that Maria Monk did not write the book at all, but a group of nativist Protestants including the aforementioned Hoyte, as wel as Rev. J. J. Slocum, Rev. George Bourne, Theodore Dwight, and others. Slocum appears to have been the principal author, because he and Maria ended up suing the others.
A little about the environment at the time might be helpful in understanding how a bokk of this type could become so popular. America in the first half of the nineteenth century already had a long history of anti-Catholic resentment and government policy. English colonists, especially the Puritans of New Englands, had a strong antipathy towards Catholicism. The movement as a whole was known as Nativism. Works of anti-Catholic literature, fiction and non-fiction, were widely available at this time. When Maria Monk’s book was published, it met an audience that was conditioned to accept the fantastic story she reported. For a fuller treatment of the anti-Catholicism of the time see American Nativism, 1830-1845 by Sean Baker.
In her book “Awful Disclosures”, Maria claimed that she had lived in the convent for a total of seven years, but had left after becoming pregnant by a priest, being unable to bear the thought of having her child killed and dumped in the mass grave in the basement. She claimed to have escaped from the convent and made her way to New York where she tells her story to a minister in a charity hospital. The minister convinces Maria that the world must know the truth, and the Awful Disclosures were published
The publication of Maria Monk’s book caused enormous public outcry that fed on the prevailing anti-Catholic sentiment of the era. The Bishop of Montreal allowed an investigation that refuted Maria Monk’s claims, but which was rejected by American Protestants. Subsequent Protestant testimony, however, proved that during the period of Maria Monk’s alleged residence in the convent she was in actual fact living as a prostitute in the city.
A New York City newspaper editor, Col. William Leete Stone, (who was a Protestant with some vague nativist sympathies) successfully asked the bishop for permission to investigate with a team of Protestants. So in October, 1836 Stone led a team around the convent, with Maria Monk’s book in hand, comparing the book’s descriptions of the interior of the convent with the convent itself. He found very little correspondence between the two, and when he later obtained permission to see the entire convent concluded that there was no evidence that Maria Monk “had ever been within the walls of the cloister.” There were no tunnels, no prisons, and no mass graves. Stone also met with Maria Monk and questioned her about the convent he had just left. He was further convinced that she had never been in the Hotel Dieu.
Maria Monk, once her claims were discredited, and when it was found out that she had actually been a prostitute in Montreal and that the years she claimed had been spent in a convent had actually been spent in the Catholic Magdalen Asylum for prostitutes (See the link to the affidavit by the matron of the asylum, in the Links section, below), fell form the public view. She was later arrested for picking the pocket of a man who had paid her for sex, and she died in prison on Welfare Island, New York City, in 1849. The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk remained in print until well into the twentieth century.
The True History of Maria Monk in 28 pages:
Affidavit of the matron of the Montreal Magdalen Asylum, Ste. Genevieve Street (Click on “TitlePage” link to view the letter):
Affidavit of Maria Monk’s mother :
The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk – a Refutation by Ruth Hughes:
American Nativism, 1830-1845 by Sean Baker:
Billington, Ray Allen. The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism. New York, 1958: 98-117.
Stein, Gordon. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Gale Research, Inc. 1993, 224-226.
“The True History of Maria Monk”, Catholic Truth Soc. (pamphlet, Lond., 1895).
Encyclopedia Brittanica online.