18 June 2009

Maria Monk's Immortal Book

Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk;
or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun's Life Exposed!
Manchester: Milner & Co., n.d.

Born, raised and educated in Montreal, I knew nothing of poor Maria Monk and her trials and tribulations until my university years when I happened upon brief mention while researching a paper. A casual, entirely unscientific survey of acquaintances and friends hints that my experience is unique only in that I learned of her at a relatively early age. Most had never encountered Miss Monk's name – and yet, since its initial publication her Awful Disclosures has sold hundreds of thousands of copies under dozens of imprints. Forget Bonheur d'occasion, never mind The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, this is the best-selling work of fiction ever set in Montreal.

When first published in January 1836, this Gothic tale of horror, with its secret doors, underground tunnels and subterranean prisons, was presented as fact. Author Maria Monk, once a nun at the Hôtel-Dieu convent, had bravely stepped forward to expose the true nature of the Roman Catholic Church.

Her story, as presented, is a simple one. The daughter of uncaring, non-observant Protestants, she chooses the Catholic faith and, after a failed marriage, takes the veil. That very afternoon, her horrors begin:

Father Dufresne called me out, saying he wished to speak with me. I feared what was his intention; but dared not disobey. In a private apartment, he treated me in a brutal manner; and from two other priests, I afterward received similar usage that evening. Father Dufresne afterward appeared again, and I was compelled to remain in company with him until morning.
It is, as Maria soon learns, the will of Pope Gregory XVI that the nuns perform 'some peculiar deeds'. What exactly does the pontiff have in mind? She cannot say – these are acts 'of which no decent or moral person could ever endure to speak.' The Pope's will ends up as just one in a series of shocking revelations. The reader learns of diseased priests who take 'Holy Retreat' in secret rooms, where they are attended to by the sisters. Infants born of priests and nuns are baptized, smothered and thrown into lime pits in the convent's cellar. Uncooperative nuns are beaten and murdered. In her fifth year as a novice, pregnant with a baby fathered by Abbé Patrick Phelan, Maria escapes the nunnery, and with surprising ease achieves sanctuary in New York City almshouse.

Engraver W.L. Ormsby's 'portrait of the heroine and her child'

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography describes Maria Monk as an author. I'm not so sure. Indeed, I wonder whether her use of writing instruments progressed much beyond childhood when she stuck a pencil in her ear (causing brain damage). The Catholic institution in which she was housed was not a nunnery, but an asylum dedicated to the reformation of prostitutes. To what extent the awful disclosures stemmed from Maria Monk's messed up mind is lost to history. The book was, at the very least, set down by other hands: American Presbyterian ministers J. J. Slocum and George Bourne, Reverend William K. Hoyt of the Canadian Benevolent Society, and New Yorker Theodore Dwight (author of the anti-papist The Roman Republic of 1849). We know this because of numerous court proceedings – most concerning squabbles over the great amounts of money being made from Maria's story.

Like any successful franchise, there were illustrated editions, sequels and spin-offs. The most noteworthy was Further Disclosures of Maria Monk Concerning the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal (1837), published the same year that she fled her Presbyterian minders. As might be expected, tracts were released by people on both sides attempting to get in on the game; among the first were Decisive Confirmation of the Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, Proving Her Residence in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery, and the Existence of the Subterranean Passages and Awful Exposure of the Atrocious Plot Formed by Certain Individuals Against the Clergy and Nuns of Lower Canada, Through the Intervention of Maria Monk. It was claimed that one book, The Escape of Saint Francis Patrick, Another Nun of the Hotel Dieu, was written by a nun whom Maria had known. The last in this sorry parade, Maria Monk's Daughter, purportedly the autobiography of her second child, was published in 1875, twenty-six years after Maria's death in a New York City prison. She'd been arrested in a brothel after robbing a john.

Maria Monk's image has undergone a number of makeovers as has her book. One 1970 edition replaces the title with Terror Behind Locked Doors and pitches itself as 'A BOOK THAT WILL NOT DIE'. Nearly four decades later the bold claim has held true in fact, Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk has never been out of print, and lives on at several internet sites run by anti-Catholic kooks and conspiracy theorists.

Object: Purchased ten years ago in a Vancouver used bookstore, my copy once belonged to a child named Margaret Crawford. Going by the art nouveau design, I imagine it was published in the late 19th century. The cover is entirely at odds with the interior, which was obviously printed with plates from a much earlier time. The type is of a size similar to that found on the back of my monthly credit card statement.

Access: 'Spotty' is a good word. The bibliotèques de Montréal, serving over two million souls, has one lonely copy (a 1992 reprint). The Toronto Public Library has several, some dating from the 19th century, but the vast majority of our public libraries have nothing at all. University libraries are a safe bet. Used copies, plentiful and cheap, range from US$1 (an amusing 1997 'erotica reprint') to US$450 (first edition). In my travels I've seen only one edition claiming to have been printed in Canadian – tellingly, without the publisher's name and address. Crappy 'new' copies can be bought from any one of a number of POD publishers. Those with an appreciation of proper production and editing are directed to the edition issued by AKS Books, a publisher specializing in fine flagellantine literature, located in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex.

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  1. I ran across this story the same way you did - a brief mention (I think of the court proceedings over royalities) while looking for something else. I'd always wanted to read it. Do you know if it inspired any responses in kind from the Catholic community?

  2. In kind? You mean like an exposé on the goings on in the vestry of Montreal's American Presbyterian Church? What I've read, points to a more reasoned response. This included allowing New York journalist William Leete Stone, the son of a Presbyterian clergyman, access to the Hôtel-Dieu convent. An interesting move, given what Stone describes as his 'hostility to the manifold corruptions of the Church of Rome'. His damning investigation, collected in Maria Monk and the Nunnery of the Hotel Dieu, is recommended - as is Awful Disclosures. Quite a fun read, if you manage to get past the tragic figure who lent her name to the title.

  3. This book manages to be anti-Catholic propaganda, Gothic horror and sadomasochistic pornography at the same time. Fascinating stuff. Thank you for posting.

  4. After reading that book and many others from ex-catholics, I happen to believe that it have a decent amount of truth in it. I'm myself an ex-catholic educated in a secular but catholic school, where the devout principal was an homosexual and a pedophile. I have heard first-person the testimony from a woman who saw the buried skeletons of many babies in the garden of a nunnery (this was when a renovation was made there). The abominations that happens in convents are not a surprise to people who are not blinded by Catholic propaganda and take the time to make their homework.

    1. I wouldn't doubt a story like this for a second. It's just common sense. It is horribly unnatural to deny men the right to a healthy sex life. This sort of thing is what happens after generations of men deny themselves what is essentially a biological need.

    2. Leaving aside the fact that the book was exposed as a hoax eighteen decades ago, I can't in any way agree that the denial of a healthy sex life leads to rape, torture, murder and infanticide.

  5. Damaris, I think you'll find with a bit more reading that Awful Disclosures has been thoroughly debunked. Looking at it with the 21st-century (b. 20th century) eyes of a Montrealer, the whole Gothic monstrosity seems so over-the-top as to be laughable. The only thing that prevents a good chuckle is the knowledge that this hateful, hate filled book has harmed so very many people, beginning with Maria Monk herself.

  6. Brian, first, pardon my English, to write is a little difficult for me because I have to use Goole Translate in order to keep an acceptable level. You should read testimonies from others ex-priests and ex-nuns, around the globe, in order to ponder her book. She wrote many terrible things that I have read from different people from different times, who happen to live similar situations. Just to name a few:
    - Nuns who are accustom (or are obliged) to have sex with priests, and kill her babies in order to hid the scandal.
    - Penances that are not only ridiculous in nature but inhumane.
    - People so brainwashed by their religion, that accept be subjected to humiliating and degrading treatment.

    Such horrible things have been narrated by many people not only by Monk. I'm not saying everything is true, because I don't think so, I said: "it have a decent amount of truth in it". You could read "Fifty years in the church of Rome" from Charles Chiniquy, a canadian ex-priest who while was in the Catholic church yet (he become a Protestant later) asked an old nun, a superior in Hotel Dieu of Montreal, about Monk's book. This is the excerpt:

    "After she had given me several other spicy stories of those interesting distant days, I asked her if she had known Maria Monk, when she was in their house, and what she thought of her book, "Awful Disclosures?" "I have known her well," she said. "She spent six months with us. I have read her book, which was given me, that I might refute it. But after reading it, I refused to have anything to do with that deplorable exposure. There are surely some inventions and suppositions in that book. But there is sufficient amount of truth to cause all our nunneries to be pulled down by the people, if only the half of them were known to the public!" (Chapter 42)

    Just some months ago, it was discovered a scandal here in Peru with a Catholic movement called "Sodalicio de Vida Cristiana", which has a sort of "houses" (aka convents) for young celibate men. Rape, pedophilia, brainwashing and degrading treatments where only some of the things you could find if you investigate about the scandal (notable names: German Doig, Daniel Murgia, Luis Fernando Figari). But.... which is the surprise? Are you not aware of the thousands of denouncements about similars things involving priests in the USA? Don't you know that the Catholic church was accused to tolerate those crimes and try to hide the facts? I remember a TIME edition devoted to those scandals. If many priest were capable to rape many children, it is so difficult to think that they were capable to torture or kill some women?

    So, I think Maria Monk was not so crazy after all. And I say again, you should read testimonies from others ex-priests and ex-nuns in order to ponder her book. And I recommend not using Wikipedia for any investigation relating Catholic scandals. I think it is not reliable at all; there is too much Catholic propaganda in it. Saludos.

    1. By the hundreds, Anon? Maria Monk doesn't contain much truth. The best that can be said is that a woman named Maria Monk existed and lived for a period in Montreal. This is documented. Also documented is the fact that she was never a nun, and that her book was the work of a group of men. Paedophilia doesn't figure in their text.

      As I say in my response to Damaris (below), crimes are often committed under cover of religion. The crime in this case involved the publication of a libellous book in order to further a religious agenda. The perpetrators' greatest victim was Maria Monk herself.

  7. Damaris, I appreciate your efforts and do hope you'll forgive the tardiness of this response.

    While countless crimes have been committed under cover of religion, guilt by association does not necessarily follow. In the case of poor Maria Monk, there is no evidence that her Awful Disclosures contain even an iota of truth. Indeed, everything indicates that her horrific story was naught but a fantasy created by her handlers.

    Charles Chiniquy's claims bear no serious consideration. Late in life, he presents, word for word, a conversation that he had decades earlier with an unidentified nun. What to make of a man who claims to have been aware of such abuse but did nothing? Of course, this is the same Charles Chiniquy who argued that the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was the work of Jesuits.

    As for Wikipedia... well, I've always argued against its use.

  8. Anyone who grants Maria Monk's ridiculous story any shred of credence is an ignorant fool, so entrenched in bigotry that he/she wouldn't know the truth if it were spelled out letter by letter.