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Fanny Allen, Daughter of Ethan Allen, Becomes New England’s First Catholic Nun

Fanny Allen

Fanny Allen

It was probably a good thing that Ethan Allen died before his daughter Fanny converted to Catholicism and became a nun.

Not only was Catholicism a despised and persecuted religion in 18th-century Vermont, but Ethan Allen was a firm rationalist who published a book attacking organized religion, Reason, The Only Oracle of Man.

A friend was astonished she joined a religious order, saying,

She certainly believes in the Catholic religion with all her heart, though how a person with her extensive information and splendid talents can receive such absurdities is a puzzle to common sense.

She was born in Sunderland, Vt., on Nov. 13, 1784, the oldest child of Ethan Allen and his second wife, Frances Montresor Brush Buchanan Allen. As a girl, she was a religious skeptic like her father. And according to Julia Smalley, a woman who knew them both, she inherited much of the energy and decision of his character.

Smalley described her as uncommonly beautiful, with fair skin and deep blue eyes, and ‘the dignity and ease of her manners gave quiet evidence to the refinement and loveliness of her character.’

Ethan Allen died when she was five years old, and her mother remarried a doctor, Jabez Penniman. Her family moved around Vermont, and she grew up in BurlingtonWestminster and Swanton.

When she was 12, she had an experience that eventually led to her conversion to Catholicism.

When I was twelve years old, I was walking one day on the banks of the river which flowed not very far from our house. The water, although very clear, rolled by in torrents. Suddenly I beheld emerging from the river an animal more resembling a monster than a fish, for it was of extraordinary size and horrid shape. It was coming directly toward me and sent a chill of terror through me. What aggravated my peril was that I could not turn away from this monster. I seemed paralyzed and rooted to the ground. While I was in this torturing situation, I saw advancing toward me a man with a venerable and striking countenance, wearing a brown cloak and carrying a staff in his hand. He took hold of my arm gently and gave me strength to move while he said most kindly to me: "My child, what are you doing here? Hasten away." I then ran as fast as I could. When I was some distance off, I turned to look at this venerable man, but I could see him nowhere.

Her mother sent a servant to find the man and thank him, but he had disappeared. Though Fanny Allen persistently looked for him over the years, she didn’t find him.

When she was 21, she asked her mother and stepfather for permission to study French in Montreal. She was also interested in learning about Catholicism, though she wasn’t sure why.

Her mother and stepfather agreed to let her go, but insisted she be baptized as an Anglican beforehand.

“I was at this time an infidel,” she later said. “I had read only novels and the writings of rationalists, and had heard nothing but evil spoken of the Catholic church.”

She was such an infidel she laughed during the baptismal ceremony and was scolded for it by the minister.

Montreal

In 1807 she went to Montreal to study with the Congregation de Notre Dame, a community of nuns who didn’t live in convents but among the poor and needy. She decided to convert to Catholicism.

When she received her first communion, she decided to become a nun. Her family strongly objected. Her mother and stepfather forced her to return home, and plied her with handsome suitors and big parties to persuade her to change her mind. She didn’t. After a year her parents allowed her to go back to Montreal.

However, Fanny Allen hadn’t decided which religious community to join. She returned to Montreal with her mother, who accompanied her as she visited various churches. She made her decision in the chapel of the Hotel Dieu de Montreal, the city’s oldest hospital. Fanny stopped in amazement at the painting of Jesus, Mary and Joseph above the altar. She pointed to the figure of Joseph and told her mother he was the man who saved her from the monster she saw as a girl.
“It is right here mother,” she said. “It is with the sisters of St. Joseph that I wish to spend the rest of my life."

She took her vows on May 18, 1811, in a chapel filled with American friends coming to see the strange sight of Ethan Allen's daughter becoming a Catholic nun.

Legacy

Fanny Allen spent the rest of her life working as a nurse in the hospital’s apothecary. She cared for American soldiers wounded during the War of 1812 and interpreted for English-speaking patients.

Fanny Allen died of tuberculosis on Sept. 10, 1819 at the age of 34. In 1894, five sisters from her order moved from Montreal to Colchester and opened a hospital, which they named in her honor. After a series of mergers, it became the University of Vermont Medical Center with a Fanny Allen campus in Colchester.

Rose Hawthorne, daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, also converted to Catholicism and became a nun. She is a candidate for sainthood. Read about her here.

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