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Madam Eckel, Maria Monk’s Daughter

By Brandon Lisi, Curator
Photo of Madam Eckel, undated. 2005.01.488 Sharon Historical Society & Museum Archives

Our story begins in early 19th-century Montreal, with a young woman named Maria. As a child, Maria suffered a head injury, resulting in a neurological disorder at a time when those with mental health issues were treated like criminals. As a teenager, she was accused of promiscuous behavior and confined to an asylum for prostitutes.

But, in 1834, at the age of 18, it was discovered that Maria was pregnant. She was immediately dismissed from the asylum and cast out into a world that was hostile to single mothers.

She then came to the attention of William Hoyte, an anti-Catholic activist. He brought Maria to New York, in an era when Catholics, particularly immigrants from Germany and Ireland, were looked upon with scorn and suspicion.

Hoyte offered Maria a sum of money and brokered a deal: she would assume the identity of a Catholic nun fleeing mistreatment in the nunnery. With few options, Maria agreed.

Photo of Maria Monk, undated. Sharon Historical Society & Museum Archives

In 1836, the “Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk” was published, though Maria herself hadn’t written a word of it. It sold 26,000 copies in its first six months of publication and reached 300,000 by the mid-1860s.  Its tales of grotesque sexual abuses and infanticide within the monastic world enthralled anti-Catholic audiences, even though scholars now regard the book as a hoax. Not only had Maria never been a nun, never spent time in the convent, she wasn’t even Catholic. 

Despite the success of the book which bore her name, Maria fell on hard times in the ensuing years. In 1849, she was convicted of stealing a wallet and incarcerated on Blackwell’s Island, where she died.

But this is not the end of our story. Maria’s daughter Lizzie was taken in by a family in the rural countryside, who enrolled the young lady in Monson Academy, located in Wilbraham, Massachusetts. By way of her paternal uncle, she visited Sharon, Connecticut, and dreamed of building a church in the rolling hinterlands along the state line. 

Retaining the name of her deceased husband, she is known to history as Madam Eckel. By 1869, after a round of international travel, she
settled in a cottage on Clark Hill Road and began raising money for the construction of  St. Genevieve’s Chapel, what would become Sharon’s first Catholic church.

Built by Madam Eckel in 1872, St. Genevieve’s Chapel was the First Catholic Church in Sharon. It stood for 22 years until the chapel was destroyed by a fire on July 4th, 1894. Found in Collection, Archives of the Historical Society & Museum, 2004.24.265

She even wrote to the Vatican, asking that a 30-acre section of Sharon could be added to the Archdiocese of New York. Her request was granted.

In 1874, Madam Eckel published her autobiography. Despite her mother’s infamous name, she entitled it: “Maria Monk’s Daughter.” She recounts the cruelty she faced at the hands of her mother, but upon learning the truth of her past writes: “Years have passed since that merciful hour, and since that time I have only cherished sentiments of sympathy and regret for my unfortunate and erring mother.” In the years after publication, Madam Eckel’s cottage and the church she built were destroyed by two separate fires, reducing her work to ashes. But what remains is the story of a remarkable woman, who despite the hardship of circumstance, forged a life of purpose that resonates to this day.

Sources and Further Reading:

Eckel, Lizzie St. John. Maria Monk’s Daughter: An Autobiography, 1875.
Kirby, Ed. “Catholics in Sharon.” In Seldom Told Tales of Sharon, Book Two, 105–11. Sharon, CT: Sharon Historical Society, 2008.
Twynham, Leonard. Madam Eckel: The Weird Sister of Sharon and Amenia. Flushing, NY, 1932.

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