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The Press
May 3, 2003

Dirty laundry
by Yvonne Martin

Hundreds of Christchurch women worked in a convent laundry like the one depicted in a new movie, The Magdalene Sisters. Only now is society realising what life was like for these girls in exile.

They became known worldwide as "laundry slaves" -- unpaid women and teenage girls who worked in large commercial laundries run by Catholic orders.

The idea was to redeem the souls of so-called "fallen" women, while generating a profit for their keepers. Tens of thousands of women toiled in these religious sweat shops in the 1800s and 1900s. Only now is their plight being recognised.

In Ireland, convent laundries were common in the 20th century. Girls were often housed in Magdalene homes, named after the biblical Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who repented before Christ and was given the honour of washing his feet.

Girls were locked away from society simply for being poor, orphaned, victims of rape, having a child out of wedlock, or deemed to be in "moral danger". Some Magdalenes, as they were called, were placed in the hands of the Church by their own families. Others came from orphanages or were committed through courts. Once incarcerated, their sentences could be open-ended. Some never left, living and dying in exile from the outside world.

A film, The Magdalene Sisters, now screening in Christchurch, tells the story of girls' lives at one such Irish home in the 1960s. It was a regimented life of no hope, strict punishment, physical abuse, and no personal contact with families.

Irish women were forced into unpaid labour eight to 10 hours a day, seven days a week, in commercial laundries run by the Sisters of Mercy. It was seen as penance for their sins and repaying society. An estimated 30,000 women and girls lived and died in Ireland's Magdalene laundries, before the last one closed in 1996.

New Zealand and Australia had its "laundry slaves", too. In Christchurch they were known as the "wayward girls" from Mount Magdala at Halswell. Despite the place name, they lived on 80 hectares of featureless farmland off Lincoln Road in an asylum for fallen women run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.

Originally from Angers in France, the order was committed to rescue work of women and girls in moral danger. By 1936, they had more than 300 homes such as Magdala around the world. From their rural isolation, the "penitents" cleaned the laundry of top hotels, military forces, and other institutions. There was something symbolically cleansing about washing, ironing, and bagging white sheets. It was also strenuous adult work in hot, steamy conditions.

Noeleen Jones, 64, who worked at Magdala for 18 months from 1954, says: "We would wash the sheets from hotels like the Windsor, the Excelsior, and Cokers Hotel, and put them through a giant mangle.

"My job was to sort through the piles of sheets, towels, napkins, tablecloths, and bedspreads to go into the washers. It was slave labour."

Kathleen Grattan (formerly Bourgeois), 62, another Magdala girl from the 1950s, remembers cleaning the white coats of army chefs, priests' vestments, and air force shirts. "Some girls would take the cigarette butts out of the fellows' shirts and smoke them."

In Australia, the same order of nuns ran laundries in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth, each with about 50 "inmates". Out of the convent laundries in the 1950s came a saying, "Bad girls do the best sheets", according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Ann Patterson, who worked in two of the laundries, says it was true. "We did all the good hotels; all their beautiful white, starched linen," she told the Herald. "Staff from the hotels would occasionally forget to fold the tablecloths and shove them in the baskets without checking. When we shook them a 10-shilling note might fall out. We used to keep that in case we ran away."

The first Sisters of the Good Shepherd arrived in Christchurch from Melbourne in 1886 to staff the asylum, on the invitation of a Catholic priest. As a chaplain at Lyttelton jail, Father Laurentius Maria Ginaty became concerned by the number of Catholic Irish women jailed for drunkenness, prostitution, or both.

He approached the order's French headquarters for help, which sent two groups of four nuns. The Magdalene asylum was officially opened in Halswell in 1888, with 40 inmates. The laundry was already in full swing by then, employing most of the girls. The nuns told The Press that year that it was hard to get the women to work at first, but they soon became "expert laundresses". Those inmates not fit enough to work in the laundry tended to the gardens, did embroidery, and sewed booties for use inside the asylum.

For many years, Mount Magdala was the only home of its kind in the New Zealand and took "bad girls" from Canterbury, Auckland, Wellington, and Dunedin. The nuns told journalists in 1912 that "all who have fallen by the wayside or who are exposed to fall were welcome", regardless of religion. (By then, nearly 800 girls had passed through.)

On arrival, girls had their names replaced by the those of saints. Kathleen Grattan became "Paula" and Noeleen Jones was renamed "Helena".

"We were called wayward girls, but I wasn't a bad girl," says Noeleen Jones."It's just that my mother didn't want me."

Kathleen Grattan was sent at 13, instead of the usual 15, because she had fled another Catholic institution and was considered unruly.

Mount Magdala was an industrious, largely self-contained community. Bread was baked on the premises, shoes made and repaired, and the cows, pigs, and fowls provided much of the food. "We had butter on Sundays for a treat and dripping during the week," says Kathleen Grattan.

A strict regime of work, prayer, and sleep was enforced. Girls were marched to church at 7am, before breakfast, says Noeleen Jones. They started work in the laundry by 8am. When a big air show or race meeting was held in Christchurch, hotels would be full and the laundry worked overtime. "Working in the laundry was more or less punishment," says Kathleen Grattan. "It was so physical."

Two men were employed to do the heaviest work, but the girls were forbidden to talk to them, just as in the movie.

The Magdalene Sisters has been moving audiences to tears with scenes of nuns beating girls for the smallest misdemeanour.

But Noeleen Jones sat through it this week, impassively and dry- eyed, with a group of former Magdala girls. "It is exactly what happened to us. We were immune to it.".

Another of her friends, whom the nuns called Runny Ears because of weeping ear abscesses, sobbed uncontrollably after it. "I finished up bawling, mainly because of a girl who went demented in the movie," she says. "Some of my mates went like that. We called them `cuckoo' or `tippy'."

Kathleen Grattan says not all of institutional life was bad. There were fun times, such as picnics and rollerskating races around the laundry after dark. "You got a hiding, but that was the thing in those days. I didn't know anything else."

In Auckland, another movie- goer, Catholic Communications director Lyndsay Freer, is appalled at what went on in convent institutions.

"This is one of the terrible shames that we have. It is indefensible, but it was a three- way partnership. Families connived with the orders (the Church). The State knew that it was going on and was a party to it," she says."But not every nun would have been a sadist."

Researcher Denis Hampton, who has written a short history of Mount Magdala, says the nuns were doubtlessly strict -- and had to be. Some would have been young themselves, untrained for the job, and overworked. By the end of the Depression, 33 nuns looked after 500 girls.

People should avoid judging the sisters by today's standards, says Hampton. "I am convinced the nuns believed what they were doing was best for the children."

However, the nuns did not -- and probably could not -- prepare the girls for outside life. "When I was 17, before I left, I was given a little red book to read and that was my sex education," says Kathleen Grattan. "I never knew there was two different sexes until then. I thought the only difference was that men wore trousers. I learnt about sex the hard way."

On leaving, each girl was given a trousseau -- a change of clothes, flannel, soap, toothbrush, and toothpaste, as if they were away for the weekend. Many struggled to live outside the Magdalene laundries. "I went into nursing and lived in a nurses' home because I had to have people around," says Noeleen Jones. "You were scared to be on your own." She married, then later remarried, and has three children.

Kathleen Grattan landed a job at St Bede's College, but the nuns disapproved of her being near so many boys. They found her a job with a Napier family instead, and paid her fare.

With a swing away from institutions and a fall-off in vocations, the Good Shepherd Sisters left Mount Magdala in 1968 after 82 years service. They moved to Auckland, where a dwindling, ageing group of nuns still live.

In late 2001, the nuns reached a mediated settlement, paying compensation and apologising to 14 women physically abused at the St Joseph's orphanage they also ran in Halswell in the 1930s to 1950s.

Mount Magdala was eventually taken over by the St John of God Order for Marylands, a residential home for boys with learning difficulties -- and another controversial chapter began. (A sex abuse scandal involving 14 brothers is under police investigation.) Today, St John still runs a hospital on the old property, alongside Hogben School.

The only remains of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd are in a private cemetery in a paddock behind the school. And their link with the land is immortalised in street names in the nearby Aidanfield subdivision.

The Magdalene Sisters is screening at the Rialto.

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CAPTION:

A new movie, The Magdalene Sisters, paints a grim picture of life in a Catholic-run laundry.