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.