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Mannard Publishes Article on Escaped Nun Phenomenon

Dr. Joseph Mannard of the History Department has published an article in the latest number of the Maryland Historical Magazine entitled “‘What Has become of Olivia Neal?’: The Escaped Nun Phenomenon in Antebellum America.”

Cultural and literary theorists have considered the case of escaped-nun tales; but, relatively few have situated nuns in their specific social and historical contexts.

Dr. Mannard employs a social approach to escaped-nun tales to show how the image of the Catholic nun epitomized “the Other” for many American Protestants. He focuses on the case of one “escaped nun,” Olivia Neale, a Carmelite sister who made what some contemporaries described as a deranged flight from her Baltimore monastery in 1839.

This event ignited three nights of rioting. Her story produced a longstanding controversy in the press and pulpit, and her alleged fate helped foster a petition campaign in the 1850s to regulate convents in the state of Maryland.

The case of Olivia Neale thus reflected and generated three expressions of anti-convent sentiment: riot, rhetoric, and regulation.

Less remembered today than other “runaway nuns” like Rebecca Reed and Maria Monk and less studied by recent scholars, Olivia Neale, nevertheless, was a highly controversial figure in antebellum America, one whose notoriety uniquely bridged the gap between the two major waves of anti-convent sentiment in the 1830s and 1850s.

The contested nature of her story, especially over the issue of her sanity, served as a kind nineteenth-century Rorschach test of public attitudes toward the Catholic Church in America. Her story also complicates and qualifies important points in the recent scholarly interpretations of escaped-nun tales offered by cultural and literary theorists.

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