Maria Monk

A few days ago I spent some time as a volunteer in the archive of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands. I helped with an inventory of the books and pamphlets that have been published by the Dutch church over the course of its 120-plus year history, in order to eliminate duplicate copies. While looking at each individual book, I suddenly came across a little book that was not actually published by the church, but may have been part of a book collection donated to the archive. It was the Dutch translation of a book that caused quite a stir when it was first published in the United States.

Maria Monk (1816-1849) was a Canadian woman who claimed that the nuns of the convent, where she supposedly lived for a number of years, were (according to her account) systematically abused by priests who could enter the convent through a secret tunnel. Baby’s that resulted from the sexual encounters were—after being baptized—strangled and dumped in a pit in the basement. Nuns who proved to be uncooperative disappeared.  Maria Monk recorded her experiences in this convent in Montreal in a book, published in 1836, with the title: Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed. It was later found that there were many inconsistencies in her story and that she apparently had a hard time distinguishing fact from fiction.

The book appeared in a period of mounting anti-Catholic sentiments in North-America. The millions of Catholic immigrants were not exactly welcomed by an American population that was still predominantly Protestant. Catholics received the kind of reception that may well be compared with the way in which Muslim immigrants are presently regarded by the majority population in many western countries.

Seventh-day Adventism emerged and developed in the United States in this anti-Catholic climate. Stories such as written by Maria Monk were also popular among nineteenth-century Adventists and there was little doubt in their minds that they were based on truth.

As the Adventist Church worldwide studies the book of Revelation during this quarter it is important to remember that our negative views regarding Roman Catholicism developed in this fiercely anti-Catholic context. As genuine Protestants, Seventh-day Adventists do well to remain critical with regard to Roman-Catholicism. There were many things in the past of the Roman Church that were not only wrong but evil. And although there have been positive developments in Catholicism—certainly in the wake of the Second Vatican Council—there are a number of doctrines which we must reject as totally unbiblical. But as we study the lessons that will deal with “the beast” and related topics, we must not let our attitude towards Roman Catholics be fully colored by stories from the past—whether true or not. We do not live in Maria Monk’s time but in 2019. In my view Roman Catholics are fellow-Christians. Their understanding of a number of “truths” may be defective, but the picture painted by Maria Monk was not an accurate portrayal of convent life in the nineteenth century and should be seen for what is was and is: unfair, one-sided anti-Catholic propaganda.

It is a sad reality that the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church has in recent years been seriously damaged by sexual scandals. But in this respect also we should not be too quick with Maria-Monk-like accusations. It is true that the Catholic authorities have been far too slow (and sometimes unwilling) in dealing with those members of their clergy who abused minors who were in their care. However, let us remember that there were, and are, many Catholic clergy who did not participate in this horrific behavior. And (sadly enough) other faith communities—including our own—have not always been immune to this kind of sexual misbehavior.


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