Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Lydia-Madeleine Longley: Puritan to Nun

The morning of July 27, 1694, was much like any other on the Longley farm in Groton, Massachusetts. Twenty-year-old Lydia Longley lived there with her parents, William and Deliverance Longley, and seven siblings. They were a prominent Puritan family in Groton where William served as the town clerk.

William Longley first noticed something unusual when he glanced out the window and saw his cows milling around in the cornfield when they should have been safely shut up in the barn. He hurried outside to round them up. He never made it to the cornfield.

Several Abenaki Indians were hiding in the bushes nearby. They had already killed or captured several of the Longleys' neighbors. Before long, William, Deliverance, and five of their children were dead. Lydia, her teenage sister Betty, and twelve-year-old John were taken prisoner by the Indians and led away. Perhaps Lydia took one last look at her Massachusetts home. If she did, she would have seen the mutilated bodies of seven members of her family scattered in the yard.

The Indians and their captives traveled north on foot. Lydia was soon separated from her brother and sister. Betty died during the journey. John remained with the Abenaki. Lydia was sold to the Pennacook tribe, probably in exchange for food, and spent much of the summer and autumn at the Pennacook settlement near the modern Concord, New Hampshire. As winter approached, the Pennacook traveled to their winter home near Ville-Marie (Montreal). They took Lydia with them.

A wealthy Frenchman named Jacques Le Bar lived in Ville-Marie. He had dealings with the Pennacook and a fine habit of ransoming captives. He freed Lydia and brought her to his home in Ville-Marie. Jacques and his children, Jeanne and Pierre, were devout Catholics, and they cared for Lydia tenderly. Lydia quickly developed a strong affection for her adoptive family, so much so that when offered the opportunity to return to Groton, she refused.

Lydia soon found herself drawn to Catholicism. Jeanne and Pierre Le Bar were both pursuing religious vocations, and Lydia was touched by their devotion and generosity. Her friend, fellow Englishwoman and former captive Mary Sayward, was already Catholic. On April 24, 1696, Lydia Longley, after a period of instruction in the Catholic faith, received the sacrament of baptism at the chapel of the Congregation of Notre-Dame and took the name Lydia-Madeleine.

Lydia-Madeleine desired to pursue her newly found Catholic faith to the fullest. In December of 1696, she joined the Congregation of Notre-Dame. Three years later, she professed her simple vows, becoming the first woman born in the English colonies to become a nun. Sister Sainte-Madeleine, as she was now called, lived a life of prayer and service in her community for sixty-two years, even serving as Mother Superior. She died on July 20, 1758, at age 84.

I first “met” Lydia Longley when I was researching a branch of my family tree and discovered that I am a direct descendent of her brother John, who was ransomed from captivity after four years. Lydia's story immediately fascinated me, and as I reflected on it more, I realized that God was using it to teach me some important lessons.

First, we must persevere with courage and hope even with the circumstances seem insurmountable. Lydia could have laid down beside the trail and died at any moment on her journey north, but she did not. She kept going. Somehow through the worst conditions, hunger, heat, and danger, she kept going.

Second, God can and does bring great good out of great evil. Lydia witnessed horrible evil. Almost her entire family was murdered right before her. She was forced to walk many miles as a prisoner, far away from her home. She may have been mistreated. She certainly suffered. But at the end of her severe trial, she discovered something wonderful: Catholicism. As a nun, she experienced the life of prayer, liturgy, and intimacy with God that Catholics hold so dear. God brought tremendous gain out of tremendous loss.

Finally, we are called to be a light that radiates truth and love. The Le Bar family showered Lydia with love. They taught her the truth of the Catholic faith by both their words and their actions. They touched her heart as they cared for her needs. They graciously cooperated with God to light up the life of this scared, sorrowful young woman. Lydia Longley, in turn, has become a light for generations of Catholics.

Selected Resources
* Lydia Longley: The First American Nun by Helen A. McCarthy (Burns & Oates, 1958)
* An Historical Sketch of Groton, Massachusetts by Samuel A. Green (Groton, 1894)
* “The Descendents of Rev. John Longley” at
* “Lydia Longley” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online at

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