Lydia Longley

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Lydia Longley (Sainte-Madeleine) (1674 – 20 July 1758), is known to many as "The First American Nun" after Helen A. McCarthy Sawyer of Groton, Massachusetts published her biographical novel written for Roman Catholic children, The First American Nun, in 1958. The facts surrounding the story of the Longley family are better documented by former Boston mayor, Dr. Samuel A. Green, a noted historian and resident of Groton, whose works included Groton During the Indian Wars (published in 1883) and The Town Records of Groton 1662-1678 (1879). Mrs. McCarthy donated her research materials for her book to the Groton Historical Society, and a review of them reveals that certain dates and family data for the Longleys stand in contradiction to several of the official records available at the Groton Town Hall and in the Massachusetts State Archives.

Lydia's grandfather William Longley, Sr., first moved to Groton from Lynn, Massachusetts in 1663. The Longleys lived there untouched by the Indians until 1676, when during King Philip's War Lydia's family was forced to flee to Charlestown, a district of Boston. After two years away from their home in Groton, they returned.

The Longley household was a farmstead built on 25 acres (10 ha) in the remote northern part of the small town. Lydia's mother died early in her marriage with Lydia's father, William, Jr., but he quickly remarried, to Deliverance Crispe. The upkeep of the Longley homestead was a team effort. The children helped maintain the cattle and the fields. They received education at home, and the boys did receive some formal education.

The Longleys lived without incident until the morning of July 27, 1694, when Abenaki warriors, fresh from their massacre of settlers at Oyster River Plantation (modern day Durham, New Hampshire), invaded the Groton area. The Longleys were not so fortunate as to escape this time. The cattle were loosed from the corral as a ruse to draw William from the house unarmed, and he was easily struck down before the Indians drew in and brutally murdered all but Lydia, aged twenty-one, and two of her siblings, seventeen-year-old Betty and twelve-year-old John. Lydia, Betty, and John were considered the right age to be useful as slaves and hostages (not so young as to be burdensome in flight, and not so old as to resist their captors), and so they were taken as captives and carried away to the north. Unfortunately, Betty died along the way, presumably of starvation and likely brought on by depression—the awful result of witnessing the murders of her parents and her five siblings down to the age of one.

Lydia was bartered immediately by her captors as they fled north along the Merrimack River: sold to the Pennacook Indians, whose settlement was located in what is today Concord, New Hampshire, probably in exchange for food. Later that year, she was carried up to the Pennacook winter home of Ville-Marie (Montreal), where she was ransomed by the wealthy Frenchman, Jacques Le Ber, who had a humanitarian bent toward freeing captives. In Canada, Lydia was influenced by the people who surrounded her, no doubt including Jeanne Le Ber, daughter of Jacques, who was herself a famous recluse and would a short time later enter the Congregation de Notre Dame as a nun. And so it was here that Lydia, less than two years after leaving her life in Puritan New England, would dive into her career as a Catholic nun. She flourished in Canada, and though she may have had the opportunity to return to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, she never appeared inclined to do so. Later in life she wrote to her brother John, who had returned from his captivity and re-established his life in Groton, asking that he abjure his "heretical" faith and join with her in following Roman Catholic ways.

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