First New England Nun
When Ethan Allen seized Fort Ticonderoga from the British in 1775, he did so in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress. That Allen believed in God no one could doubt. That he did not believe in the divinity of Christ Allen established beyond all doubt when in 1785 he published Reason: The Only Oracle of Man, a long and turgid attack on Christianity and organized religion. The book was a failure only selling 200 of its 1500 volumes. Allen who paid for the publication out of his own pocket took a financial beating. Timothy Dwight, future president of Yale, accurately described the book: “the style was crude and vulgar, and the sentiments were coarser than the style. The arguments were flimsy and unmeaning, and the conclusions were fastened upon the premises by mere force.” Nonetheless Allen did still believe in God as his tombstone attested:
The Corporeal Part of Ethan Allen Rests Beneath this Stone, the 12th day of February 1789, Aged 50 Years. His spirit tried the Mercies of his God In Whom he firmly Trusted.
One can wonder what Allen thought in the world to come when he learned that his daughter would be the first New England nun.
Fanny Allen was born in 1784 and was four years of age when her famous father died. Her mother remarried to a Doctor Jabez Penniman in 1793 who loved Fanny dearly and treated her as if she was his own daughter.
At the age of 12 Fanny had a mystical experience:
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.
For her time she had an excellent education, attending Middlebury Seminary where she demonstrated an aptitude for science, or, as it would have been known at that time, natural philosophy. When she reached the age of 21 she asked permission of her parents to go to Montreal to study French. They said yes, but to guard her against Catholicism they had her baptized by an Episcopal priest. Having inherited to the full her father’s skepticism, she was admonished for laughing through the entire ceremony. Ironically the Anglican clergyman who baptized her, Daniel Barber, would eventually convert to Catholicism.
She became a pupil of the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Montreal in 1807. A second mystical experience placed her on the path to conversion. She was asked by a sister to place flowers on the altar of the chapel. When she attempted to step into the sanctuary she was prevented from doing so three times by some invisible force. She immediately fell on her knees and prayed, convinced of the Real Presence. Her parents, learning of her intent to convert, withdrew her from the Congregation. Taking her home for a year they attempted to dissuade her with many tactics, including lavish parties and handsome suitors. All was in vain. She returned to Montreal intent on becoming a Catholic and a nun.
When she visited the Hotel Dieu de Montreal, she saw in that hospital a painting of the Holy Family. She gasped with surprise when she saw the painting, seeing in the representation of Saint Joseph the man in her vision who saved her years before.
She entered the novitiate of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph in 1808. Her parents came to visit her in 1809 and were relieved when they saw how happy she was, and how happy the other nuns were. They came to accept her decision. When she took her final vows in 1811, the convent chapel was thronged with many Americans come to see Ethan Allen’s daughter become a nun. During her time as a nun so many Americans stopped by to visit her that she ultimately restricted those visits to friends and family.
She worked in the hospital’s apothecary until she died of a lung disorder in 1819. She was buried under the chapel of the Hotel-Dieu.