The Burning Church

For the last month, it seems like whenever I engaged in any form of social media I found myself looking at a primitive painting of a burning church. This image, by the nineteenth-century British expat artist John Hilling (1822-1894), who worked in Massachusetts and Maine, was chosen to illustrate a Smithsonian Magazine piece on David Vermette’s book A Distinct Alien Race: the Untold Story of Franco-Americans. It appeared on my feeds again and again as I’m often researching Franco-American communities in New England: it’s a favorite topic of students in the research seminar I teach, as Salem had a large and influential community of resident French Canadians in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, just one labor force for the city’s then- bustling textile mills. This community still has representatives in Salem today, though it was profoundly impacted by the Great Salem Fire of June 1914 which struck right in the heart of its neighborhood. So obviously, research topics abound, and apart from those inquiries, there’s something about a church in flames, whether by accident or intent, that always captures one’s attention.


So here’s the image which has followed me online for last month or so: John Hilling’s Burning of the Old South Church, Bath, Maine, 1854 from the collection of the National Gallery of Art. There are several very interesting things about this painting: it is not signed by Hilling, but only referred to as his work in contemporary records–as well as his obituary; Hilling was documenting an event, so it is part of a sequential series which he created in several sets–indicating demand for such images; and even though this inflamed church looks like the perfect New England Congregational house of worship, it is being attacked for its recent alien occupation by a Catholic parish by a Nativist mob of Know-Nothings, in that contentious summer of 1854. Hilling created a before scene in which this mob appears to be looting the Church, and then an after in which it is in flames, and while browsing through the lots of an upcoming Doyle auction this weekend I found another stage of this scene by Hilling: a peaceful scene of the Church pristine.

CHurch Hilling Before Doyle

CHurch Gibbes Old-South-Church-by-John-Hilling-e1522359188267

Church Looting WoA-AMP-OC 518-dt

Hilling Sotheby's

Hilling Sothebys 2Doyle Auctions; Gibbes Museum of Art; Jeffrey Tillou Antiques; Sotheby’s Auctions.

We know that besides Bath, Hilling lived in Charlestown, Massachusetts, so I can’t help but wonder if his Church scenes were inspired by another notorious expression of anti-Catholicism twenty years before: the burning of the Ursuline Convent on St. Benedict (now in Somerville; then in Charlestown) in 1834. The “memory” of this epic event seems to have had a fast hold on all who witnessed or even heard of it, and I bet Hilling was no exception, even though he was only a boy and likely not even in this country when it happened.


Harry Hazel, The nun of St. Ursula, or, The burning of the convent. A romance of Mount Benedict (1845).

7 responses to “The Burning Church

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Hilling’s painting of the 1854 burning of the Catholic Church in Bath, Maine is quite dramatic. As a “recent alien occupation by a Catholic parish,” the structure suffered the fate of other Roman Catholic Churches in New England at the time. One was the first St. Mary’s Church in Lynn, MA in the 1850s during the nativist Know Nothing ascendancy.

    My dear Irish mother, who never forgot a slight by the Yankees, often spoke of the burning of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown in 1834. The way she described the event made me think it had happened in the more recent past. Thus, I put together this little piece on the subject a few years back:

  • Katherine Greenough

    Hello Donna – very timely post about religious bigotry. What a lovely church that was in Bath, Maine. I have seen this painting somewhere before, and as a Boston resident, I am painfully aware of the burning of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown. The atmosphere today isn’t much better .

  • renlittle

    Read your article on the “Burning Church” with interest,
    My 3rd great grandfather John Masters (1770-1846) was the Town Clockmaker in Bath ME and maintained the clock in the Old South Church for many years. He is buried there. My great grandfather was David Mason Little. There’s your Salem connection.
    Warren Masters Little

    • daseger

      Wow—rarely I do get a great Salem connection when I post about something non-Salem–well that’s not true! Great admirer of your great-grandfather—and all the Littles. I see their former houses every day!

  • Kelly Page

    There are two more in this series at the Maine Historical Society–Painting.

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