The Charlestown Seminary

A mob burned the first school for girls in Charlestown to the ground in 1834. The second survived until it was claimed by the wrecking ball in the 1940s.

The first school for girls in Charlestown, Mount Benedict Academy, a Catholic convent of Ursuline nuns and finishing school for young women, opened in 1820. Built just north of the Neck, the convent and school were burned to the ground by a mob in 1834.

The second school for young women, the Charlestown Female Seminary, was founded in 1831 by two pastors of the First Baptist Church, Dr. William Collier and Dr. Henry Jackson.  The Baptists moved their church to a large brick house at Lawrence and Austin Streets which they enlarged in 1830. Nearby, at Lawrence near Union Street, the church established the Charlestown Female Seminary.

In the early nineteenth century the word seminary began to replace the word academy. The seminary saw its task primarily as professional preparation. The male seminary prepared men for the ministry while the female seminary understood its mission to be the “training of women for teaching and for ‘republican’ motherhood.”

The Charlestown seminary opened with forty pupils and four teachers. Over time 160 students became the average enrollment.

Martha Whiting was Charlestown Seminary’s first headmistress, or Governess. Considered one of the pioneers of female education in America, Whiting came to Charlestown from Hingham where she had been a school director since she was 17.

Curriculum included English, Geography, American and ancient history; European and Ecclesiastical history; Constitutional Law; science and general political classes including political economy, and Latin.

The entire time she was in Charlestown Whiting kept a ‘religious journal’.  In it she recorded her spiritual challenges. “My principal object is to have my school a resort for young ladies,” Whiting wrote, “who may not only be instructed in the sciences, but in knowledge which will, with the blessing of God, end in their conversion.”

Besides running the seminary, Whiting reached out to the Irish population and provided clothing so that poor Irish children could attend Sabbath-school.  In her evangelical fervor, reflected in her journal, she also distributed religious tracts in the neighborhood.

Illustrious women who graduated from the seminary include: Sophia B. Packard, co-founder of  the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary,  predecessor to Spelman College, America’s oldest college for African American women; author Mary Hayden Pike, painter Ellen Harrington and Mary Livermore, writer, publisher and abolitionist who became important in the women's suffrage movement.

Until her death in 1853, Whiting was director of the seminary. When the seminary closed, the building became home for the Young Men’s Evangelical Society and later became the Prescott House, where, the Charlestown Enterprise reported, there were ‘small dancing parties’. The building was demolished in the 1940's.

  • Where was it? at Lawrence Street, between Union and Austin. Near present day Seminary Street.
  • When was it built?  1831
  • Who built it? The First Baptist congregation
  • What was it built for and who was the first occupant? for the education of girls; there were forty pupils in the first session.
  • Why was it built? Female seminaries were being built throughout the country. The movement to offer young women education beyond the grammar school level had been gathering momentum since 1814 when Catherine Fiske began the Young Ladies Seminary in Keene, N.H.
  • How was it built?  of wood

Information for this article was compiled from various research materials, including: Century of Town Life by James Frothingham Hunnewell; The Charlestown Enterprise, December 8, 1917; The Churches in Charlestown, An Historical Sketch by Carl Zellner; The Schools in Charlestown, An Historical Sketch by Carl Zellner; Inequity in Education:A Historical Perspective By Debra Meyers and Burke Miller; The Teacher’s Last Lesson:A Memoir of Martha Whiting compiled by Catharine Badger; and the following web-sites: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_seminary;  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_education_in_the_United_States; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlestown_Female_Seminary_%28Massachusetts%29; http://www.clements.umich.edu/exhibits/online/womened/Institutions.html#a2; http://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/5415298693/in/set-72157625848989765.

Mary Brock May 09, 2012 at 02:50 PM
Ditto, Joseph. Helen, Do you know the "reasoning" behind burning the Ursulines down? Was it because they were educating women or because they were Catholic? Thanks for the interesting article. Always a pleasure to read your work.
Nancy Hannan May 09, 2012 at 03:04 PM
Thank you for another journey in the way-back machine Helen. Wow what a great chunk of herstory. It's especially stimulating to imagine all of the good that happened between 1820 and 1833. Are there any photos of the women graduates taken at that time?
Helen O'Neil May 09, 2012 at 08:28 PM
Not that I'm aware of. I wonder how common cameras were at that time. A quick Wikipedia says 1840 for the invention of the camera -- but you never know. Something could turn up. Thanks for reading, Nancy. I appreciate it.
Helen O'Neil May 09, 2012 at 09:18 PM
In 1834 an anti-Catholic mob burned down the convent. There's a terrific article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ursuline_Convent_Riots which gives the history and cites some great primary sources. It's an incredible part of our history. Thank you, Mary for the question.
Helen O'Neil May 10, 2012 at 12:53 PM
Thank you for reading Joseph. Glad you enjoy the 'history lessons.' Charlestown has so many different layers of history. It's fun to investigate.


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