Dr. Joseph Mannard, Department of History, will deliver a paper, “The ‘Escaped Nun’ Phenomenon in Antebellum America: The Case of Olivia Neale,” at the eighth triennial Conference on the History of Women Religious—Confronting Challenges: Women Religious Respond to Change, taking place at the University of Scranton on June 27–30, 2010.
Beginning in the 1830s with books allegedly authored by Rebecca Reed and Maria Monk, the phenomenon of the “escaped nun” became a staple of anti-Catholic literature and sentiment in nineteenth-century America. This paper examines the case of one “escaped nun,” Olivia Neale, a Carmelite who fled from her Baltimore monastery in 1839 and produced great controversy. In one sense Neale appeared to embody a stock character in anti-convent fiction—the nun who loses her mind because of forced confinement. In other ways, however, Neale’s story was unique. This paper analyzes how those differences complicate our understanding of the historical and cultural significance of the “escaped nun” phenomenon in antebellum America.