Roman Catholic Horrors: Magdalene Launderies and Asylums
A life unlived: 35 years of slavery in a Magdalene Laundry
One woman tells the story of her mother who was sent to a Laundry in Dublin at the age of 16 – and died there at the age of 51.
THE TREATMENT OF women incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries – and the level of State involvement in these Church-run institutions – has been highlighted yet again this month. There was disappointment among survivors and relatives of those kept in the Laundries when it was announced that a State committee’s final report into the matter would be delayed until the end of the year.
To reiterate the urgency of revealing the inter-departmental findings, the Justice for Magdalene advocacy group last week distributed some redacted statements of women detailing their lives in such institutions. (The group claims that there was State involvement in the operation of the Laundries as places to send women considered to be “problem girls”, due to poverty or pregnancy outside marriage for example.)
Samantha Long’s mother Margaret Bullen was placed in Gloucester Street (now Sean McDermott Street) Laundry c.1967 and died 35 years later, never having been released into society and her own home. Margaret died of an illness known as Goodpasture Syndrome, a disease of the kidneys and liver – one of the causes is exposure to industrial-strength chemicals such as those used in the Laundries.
Samantha made a lengthy statement to the interdepartmental committee, led by Senator Martin McAleese, about her mother’s life. Margaret Bullen had a tragic start in life: she was born in a mental institution in Grangegorman, Dublin to a mother who already had six children, Margaret being the youngest. Margaret was sent home to Kimmage to live with her siblings and father, where she remained until she was three years old. At that point, Margaret’s brother was sent to Artane industrial school and Margaret and her sister closest to her in age sent to the notorious High Park industrial school and Laundry in Drumcondra. That, as Samantha says of her mother, “was the end of her and the outside world”.
A second statement sent to Senator McAleese’s committee from a former Laundry inmate who remembers Margaret and her sister recounts how Margaret suffered fits as a young child but that they were ignored by the nuns there (then known as the Sisters of Charity of Refuge, now the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity).
Margaret appears to have been moved in her early teens to a special school called St Teresa’s in Blackrock, after she was certified mentally unfit for education, but fit for work. Her daughter Samantha says in her own statement:
She was assessed at age thirteen as being mentally challenged because on the day that they measured her, they said that she had an IQ of fifty, which I dispute after meeting her, even after all those years of institutionalisation.. And I think that if you’re hungry and tired from your slavery, your IQ wouldn’t be very sharp, or your skills on any given moment mightn’t be sharp. You would be probably just pulled into this room – “now we’re going to measure your IQ” – so even the shock of that wouldn’t, you know, you could shut down.
At roughly the age of 16, Margaret was sent to the Magdalene Laundry at Gloucester Street. The exact time and circumstances of her move there are not clear because Samantha and her sister are still waiting on full records to be supplied to them on their mother’s past.
She became pregnant – twice – with Samantha and her twin sister Etta, and later with another daughter, while officially under the care of the Gloucester Street nuns. The circumstances of these conceptions are again shrouded in mystery but Samantha says her conversations in later life with her mother when they were reunited led her to believe that Margaret had been the victim of sexual abuse and predators several times.
There was no education, no education and I, you know, I honestly believe for a long time she didn’t know how she got pregnant, she just knew that somebody hurt her once and then she had babies. I really believe that. She didn’t make that connection, I know that for sure. She was no, she didn’t have a boyfriend, let’s put it that way. And that’s the politest way that I can say that.
Some of the more harrowing details of Samantha’s testimony recount how her mother was denied society, education, wages and other basic rights for most of her life. This extract recalls Samantha and Etta’s first meeting with Margaret in the Gresham Hotel when they were 23 and had traced her as their biological mother. (Samantha and Etta were adopted by a loving couple in Dublin and later moved to Sligo in childhood.)
Margaret was only 42 at the time but looked much older. She was carrying a handbag but it was completely empty, because she didn’t own anything nor did she have any money. Samantha recalls:
And, she was just lovely, and she was asking extremely innocent questions like, she, it was the first time she ever had coffee and it was very exciting for her to have coffee and she hadn’t seen brown sugar before either and obviously in the Gresham there was brown and white sugar cubes on the table and it was all very fancy to her. And she was just overjoyed to be there and absolutely wowed by everything.
She looked, she looked like a pensioner. I couldn’t believe she was forty-two, I kept looking, I kept looking into her face to find a forty-two year old and I couldn’t, because she had the face of hard work, that face that you see in so many women that have just had to work too hard and have never had a rest and have never had anyone to take care of them or tell them to put their feet up, and who have just, just worked too hard. Because, as I said on the radio a few years ago, this was slavery and I don’t use that term lightly and I’m not an emotive person but slavery is a form of work for which you get no pay and you can’t leave and these were the white slaves of Ireland and they were never emancipated. And nobody stood up for them until now, until you guys (Justice for Magdalenes) did.
Samantha Long was asked by Senator McAleese’s commission what she would like the State to do to redress any wrongs committed against the women in Magdalene Laundries. She answered:
I would like the state to apologise for keeping those young girls behind bars, literally and figuratively. I would like the church and state to apologise for forcing them to do slave labour.
I would like the church, the state and society to redress their reputations and apologise for keeping them down, for denying them education, freedom, money, their babies and their lives, all of those things.
And I would like that the circumstances that they find themselves in, through the missing pieces that the rest of us get in life, because they had no education, so how could they make it?
They were sitting ducks, keep them down, keep them unaware of their rights, keep them without money, keep the roof over their head, feed them a little bit, keep them alive, just enough for work. Give them their wages now, give them their wages.
Irish religious orders confirm they will not pay Magdalene Laundry victims
In a completely enraging move, two of the four religious orders that once ran Magdalene laundries in Ireland have again refused to contribute any money toward compensating the surviving women.
Over a year after the Irish Taoiseach (Prime minister) Enda Kenny gave a heartfelt State apology to the tens of thousands of women who had been cruelly incarcerated in Magdalene laundries, the Irish government’s repeated attempts to hold the orders financially accountable have met with blank refusals.
All four orders, which include The Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, the Good Shepherd Sisters, and the Sisters of Charity have, at various times, publicly refused to contribute financially to the proposed compensation scheme.
According to recent reports in the Irish press, the four orders, which ran the Magdalene laundries, made almost $415 million in property deals during the Irish economic boom. Given those eye-popping figures, the refusal to offer one thin dime in compensation can be seen in its proper light.
It hasn’t quite been two decades since the last Magdalene Laundry in Ireland closed in 1996. That’s well within the living memory of young adults. All those decades of unpaid drudgery, with moral opprobrium added on top, and the orders don’t feel they have a case to answer?
Clearly they are hoping that even now most Irish people would prefer to look the other way – exactly the way they used to when these for-profit gulags were in operation.
Recall that the Irish government had to be brow beaten for years by a group of committed former inmates and their offspring before they finally offered the women a full apology. That apology was only offered in February 2013, by the way.
So the deep Irish reluctance to face up to the legacy of exploitation and widespread physical and sexual abuse within the church has been one of the most remarkable aspects of the now three decade long crisis.
Instead of principled stock-taking, denial, defensiveness and withholding have been the standard responses.
What fascinates me is what happens to a nation that fails to confront its own traumas? Will it hand them on to the next generation without comment? These orders profited for decades from indentured servitude. The women they incarcerated had to pay their own way out.
Now, flush with cash from their extensive property deals, they are withholding all material support from the women they once treated as chattel.
It is estimated that 600 Irish women who were once incarcerated in one of the laundries run by the four orders are still alive. All of them are elderly. The orders may hope that time turns the page on their stories and the nation forgets them. Waiting out the clock, they may be right.
Column: The Catholic Church owes the women of the Magdalene Laundries
The Catholic Church and the Irish State were both responsible for incarcerating women in the Magdalene Laundries – and so both must pay, writes Anne Ferris TD.
IN APRIL 1955, a Scottish writer researching a book about Ireland talked his way into the Magdalene Laundry in Galway. First he had to obtain the permission of the Bishop of Galway, Dr Michael John Browne, the same man who a decade later would refer to the RTE broadcaster Gay Byrne as “a purveyor of filth” for the sin of discussing the colour of a lady’s nightgown on the Late Late Show.
True to form, Bishop Browne warned the Scotsman “if you write anything wrong it will come back on you” adding as a condition of entry to the laundry that anything intended to be published about the visit would have to be approved in advance by the Mother Superior of the Sisters of Mercy.
The Scotsman, Dr Halliday Sutherland, agreed to abide by the bishop’s stipulation and was granted rare access to a Magdalene laundry. His subsequent account is worked into a single chapter in his 1956 book ‘Irish Journey’. To what extent it was censored by the Mother Superior, we will never know.
An ‘agreed’ year of unpaid domestic service
The day before he visited the laundry in Galway, Dr Sutherland visited the Mother and Baby home in Tuam. He noted that the accepted practice was that unmarried mothers in the Tuam home ‘agreed’ to provide a year of unpaid domestic service to the nuns, and that in addition to this servitude, the home received State support, via Galway County Council, to the tune of £1 per child or mother per week.
Sutherland was told that any child not adopted by the age of seven was sent to work in one of Ireland’s notorious Industrial Schools, no doubt a factor in the decisions of the thousands of Irish women who ‘agreed’ to the export of their children for Catholic adoptions abroad. Women who were re-admitted to the Tuam Mother and Baby Home on a second occasion were automatically sent to work at the Magdalene Home Laundry in Galway. By directing the women to the laundry and the children to the industrial schools the State saved money and the Church made money.
Church and State incarcerated women: both must pay
Today, thanks to the Magdalene survivors groups we know what the women suffered and that the Mother and Baby homes were only one of many routes by which the Church and State incarcerated women in the Magdalene laundries and similarly operated religious institutions. This is why in February of this year, after successive governments failed to engage meaningfully with the Magdalene survivors, the current Taoiseach made a formal apology to the women on behalf of the State.
This week the Government announced a redress fund for the survivors. It remains to be seen if the amount and means of payment will prove sufficient to compensate for the State’s role in this tragedy. No sum of money can take away the pain that these women have endured. In my capacity of Vice Chair of the Oireachtas Committee for Justice, Defence and Equality I personally undertake to closely monitor the progress of any necessary legislation designed to effect the speedy and appropriate distribution of redress to the women concerned. But there can be absolutely no ambiguity regarding the financial contribution to be made by the Church. There is now no hiding from the enormity of what these women suffered in the so called ‘care’ of these religious institutions.
Stripped of personal liberty
On the day in 1955 that Dr Halliday Sutherland visited the Galway Magdalene he met some of its seventy-three unpaid manual workers who lifted and toiled in the heat and wet doing laundry work for businesses, institutions and homes in Galway. One woman told him she had been there for 25 years. He asked another if she liked the laundry. She answered “yes” but according to Sutherland she did not look him in the eye. Later, he said, a nun told him that she was a bold girl.
“On Sundays they’re allowed to use cosmetics”, the sister-in-charge told him.
But…“Are the girls free?” asked Sutherland.
“Yes” said the nun.
“Can a girl leave whenever she chooses?
“No, we are not as lenient as all that.” said the Mother Superior.
Anne Ferris is the Labour Party TD for Wicklow and East Carlow. She is also Vice Chair of the Oireachtas Committee for Justice, Defence and Equality.
Force the Orders who ran the Magdalen Laundries to pay compensation.
Why this is important
Magdalene survivors to receive €11,500 to €100,000
By Joe Humphreys Wed, Jun 26, 2013, 20:24
Government provides at least €34.5 million to compensate women held in laundries
Survivors of the Magdalene laundries are to receive lump sum payments of between €11,500 and €100,000 for their time spent in the institutions, the Government has announced.
Under a new compensation scheme, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter said approximately 600 women were expected qualify for the ex gratia payments, and “crucially payment of these sums of money is not dependent on proof of any hardship, injury or abuse”.
Members of one group representing survivors have rejected the offer. Magdalene Survivors Together want all the women detained to be given a basic payment of €50,000 and one member has called on the Government to go back to the drawing board.
While Mr Shatter said it was impossible to give an accurate prediction of total costs as the number of validated applicants had yet to be established “my officials estimate the total cost of these lump sum payments would be in the range of €34.5 million to €58 million.
A woman who spent any time of three months or less would receive a lump sum of €11,500, and the amount then increases. For one year it will be €20,500 and for five years €68,500. The maximum payment is €100,000 for women were in a laundry for 10 years or more.
Women who are entitled to more than €50,000 through the scheme will receive a €50,000 lump sum, plus an annual payment calculated from the remaining sum, which would be paid weekly.
Allowing for this condition, “one off payments in the range would total €24 million to €40 million with total weekly payments amounting to €70,000 to €1.26 million annually.”
To minimise further legal costs, Mr Justice Quirke, president of Law Reform Commission, recommended that before accepting any payment, the woman should agree not to make any further claim against the State and should have access to independent legal advice.
Mr Shatter said it was in discussions with the Legal Aid Board on how to provide that advice.
Mr Shatter has met the four religious congregations which ran the laundries and told them they are expected to contribute to the compensation. “There will be great disappointment within Cabinet if the congregations fail to make a contribution,” he said. Mr Shatter would not put a figure on how much they are expected to pay. During talks with the orders, some nuns said they still care for more than 100 Magdalene survivors at their own expense. “They are making a contribution by providing them with accommodation and supports,” he said. “Of course they are going to incur expense and work has to be done in providing us with the verifying records that are necessary.”
Women who were held in one of the Magdalene laundries rejected the offer and called on the Government to go back to the drawing board. Members of
Magdalene Survivors Together want all the women detained to be given a basic payment of €50,000 for the emotional and psychological damage suffered, with additional compensation sought for work at the laundries. They also want all the money paid in one bulk, instead of an initial lump sum followed by weekly amounts making up the balance.
Maureen Sullivan, the youngest known survivor admitted to one of the laundries, said women were forced to work from morning till night — washing floors from 7.30am, in a laundry throughout the day, and then making rosary beads at night. “I think they totted it up all wrong,” she said. “They need to go back to the drawing board.”
But Sally Mulready of the Irish Women Survivors Network, which represents around 60 UK based survivors, said it welcomed the scheme as a “fair, fast and just settlement, without endless lawyers and legal costs”.
She particularly welcomed the provision for enhanced pension which was fitting recognition of the time women spent working in the laundries.
The Sisters of Mercy ran two laundries, one in Dun Laoghaire which closed in 1963 and one in Galway which closed in 1984. It said its archives will be open for women to check how long they spent in the institutions.
The congregation also said it supported the possibility of mediation between nuns and surviving women. “We will welcome the opportunity for such interaction mindful that all Sisters who held positions of responsibility and worked in Galway or Dun Laoghaire are now deceased,” they said.
Other recommendations made by Judge Quirke include:
* Magdalene women will be granted free access to services — including GP, hospital care, drugs and dental counselling — by way of an enhanced medical card.
* All Magdalene women who have reached pensionable age will have income equivalent to the state contributory pension.
* Those who have not reached pensionable age will have income of 100 euro per week.
* All cash payments will be exempt from income tax and other taxes and will not be taken into account in means testing for social welfare or other benefits.
* A dedicated unit will be created to provide advice and support, assistance in meeting with religious congregations and social opportunities to meet other such women.
Magdalene Laundries: Women who have lost their way
By Rachael Romero – posted Thursday, 20 June 2013
From the link: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=15148
The Washington Times article: “A Magdalene Laundry survivor speaks out,” reminds us that Magdalene Laundries were not only in Ireland but replicated all over the world.
Was the Irish State’s recent apology for their complicity with the church in the enslavement of young women for years inside the notorious Magdalene Laundries, (or workhouses for girls, many of which were run by Good Shepherd nuns) – and subsequent calls for restorative justice for survivors – the impetus for the Good Shepherd Sisters in Australia putting a new spin on the history they share with Irish nuns?
By recasting themselves online as seekers of justice they hope you don’t know of their role in more than a century of hidden imprisonment of vulnerable girls in Australia’s infamous Magdalene Laundries. When they say their doctrines promote freedom, do we infer that hypocrisy is their policy as a means to deceive and deflect criticism? Their new website says they’ve commissioned Anti-Slavery Australia to route out “hidden exploitation.” The Australian Good Shepherd’s historical perpetration of “hidden exploitation” in Magdalene Laundries no doubt informs their expertise. Disclosure: As a recipient of ‘hidden exploitation’ in their hands, so does mine!
In 1967, inside the dark-walled Dickensian world they ruled supreme, the Good Shepherd nuns suggested that I might just as well give up school. I was just fourteen. It occurred to me that school was mandatory till age fifteen so I claimed it not only as my right, but also as a way to get a few hours out of forced labor in their thundering, antiquated laundry. How had I come to this dreadful place?
Like so many others I’d run away from home following a particularly brutal and life threatening attack by my father, (who had abused me physically, psychologically and sexually for years). Having turned myself into the Welfare I was subsequently dispatched (under the signature of my parents) to endure extra-judicial imprisonment and forced labor in a Magdalene Laundry run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in suburban North Plympton, South Australia (1941-74.)
There, I was treated as defiled and forced to work in the laundry under the blind eye of the State of South Australia and the noses of god-fearing South Australian citizens. Out-of-sight-out-of-mind.
I was just one of tens of thousands of vulnerable girls stigmatized as “fallen,” herded like sheep to the slaughterhouse that was the Catholic solution. Those in charge of the Convent of the Good Shepherd were carrying out a mandate to get wanton, lost girls and women off the streets where they might contaminate society. The nuns’ constant vilification branded us-as livestock are branded-by fire. We were treated as mere objects of contempt, there to earn our wretched keep in Magdalene Infernos around the world.
The advocacy group, Justice for Magdalenes, brought the issue to the attention of the United Nations Committee Against Torture eventually resulting in the Irish State’s recognition of culpability this year. (Australia has yet to address this, other than the 2009-sweeping apology to all of those mistreated in care during the last century.) Imagine my disbelief when I find the Good Shepherds using words like: Hope, Action, Justice to obscure their unpardonable history as slave-drivers of the most vulnerable girls society could serve up to them, presumably hoping to gain cred by awarding the writer Sushi Das (well placed as the Opinion Editor of The Age,) an award-on International Woman’s Day.
Have the Good Shepherds Nuns “lost their way?” Their idea of themselves as altruistic shepherds saving young “fallen” girls from themselves by herding them into hard labor was and is condescending, antiquated, disingenuous and the results have been horrific and gravely injurious. Why don’t they come clean about their dirty laundry? I believe the church is afraid that survivors seeking restorative justice will cause the revelation of hard facts resulting in potential donors to beginning to see their current Anti Slavery crusade as same old… sanitized with PC language.
On their newly branded Good Shepherd website, Noelene White writes: “…the work of Good Shepherd Sisters and mission partners […], isn’t that different to what Good Shepherd has done since the Order began in France in 1835.” [Italics mine]
I suggest that the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Good Shepherd nuns’ arrival in Australia be seized as a time for the Good Shepherd Sisters to explore how they lost their way and an opportunity to taste the penitence and humility they so zealously forced upon those in their care. Let their archives be opened and those pitiful records studied. Let there be restorative justice for all those who suffered in the Good Shepherds’ Magdalene Laundries worldwide!
A Survivor of the Magdalene Laundries speaks out: Bonnie’s story
DALLAS, May 1, 2013 – Bonnie Armijo awoke from the warm embrace of a dream and grimaced as she realized she was back in her bed on the third floor of St. Anne’s Institute in Albany, New York.
St. Anne’s was a Magdalene asylum for girls who had been labeled by either the courts or their families as having “fallen” from moral virtue.
Established by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages to provide a place where reformed prostitutes would cleanse their sins in preparation for marriage, these institutions proliferated across Europe into Ireland, Scotland and across the ocean to Australia, Canada and the United States. They took a dark turn during the industrial revolution in the 1800’s and became workhouses where girls as young as fourteen worked in laundries and were subject to a cruel and abusive form of penance to “restore their virtue.”
As a young girl of fifteen, the Irish singer Sinead O’Connor spent eighteen months in a Magdalene Laundry. Her Saturday Night Live appearance that sparked huge controversy when she ripped up a picture of the Pope was motivated by the sexual and physical abuse she had suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church.
Various religious orders ran the Magdalene Asylums, and St. Anne’s was one of many asylums operated by Sisters from the Order of the Good Shepherd in the United States.
The few who witnessed the institutions saw prisons with towering stone walls topped with barbed wire, where once inside all hope was stolen from the very depths of your soul.
Back from her dream, Bonnie stirred beneath the shallow blankets that seemed only to invite the cold rather than banish it. Her eyes struggled to focus in the darkness as she rubbed her arms trying to keep warm. The large open room she was in was populated with iron-framed beds and worn cotton sheets, filled with other young girls who soundly slept in the serenity of the darkness.
Bonnie could feel the cool breeze of an early morning wind as her long dark hair danced in its grasp, and December 1966 arrived with a grand entrance across the landscape of the city of Albany.
As she looked around, Bonnie saw a silhouette bathed in the moonlight, and as she looked closer, she made out the figure of a young girl standing with her feet perched upon the windowsill on the precipice of a three story drop, poised to jump.
Bonnie walked slowly toward the window, still unsure whether her dream had ended or if it had morphed into a bottomless nightmare. As she drew closer she recognized the girl standing on the edge of her own demise as someone she had nicknamed “Daffy” referring to the Walt Disney character Daffy Duck. The two had made the journey from the Children and Family Shelter in Long Island to St. Anne’s Institute.
Bonnie cried out, “Daffy don’t do it!” just as her friend began to throw herself into a descent from her third story perch. Bonnie reacted without thinking and grbbed Daffy’s nightgown, pulling her back into the room and on top of her.
Suddenly the atmosphere of the room exploded as the ‘Solidarity Sisters” rushed in to grab “Daffy,” pushing Bonnie aside. The Solidarity Sisters were young girls who believed their sins to be so great they handed their lives over to the Order of the Good Shepherd. Never able to become nuns, they instead became the “enforcers” of the Mother Superior, carrying out punishments that were handed down for violations of an ever-changing rulebook.
The Solidarity Sisters grabbed “Daffy” and began handling her so roughly that one of her teeth was knocked out and blood spread across the white tile floors like a river of fear. The nun in charge of the night shift at St. Anne’s rushed in, awakened from her deep sleep and not wearing the distinctive veil of the order.
The nun began barking orders to the Solidarity Sisters, “Grab her feet!” and then turned to Bonnie “You grab her arms and all of you follow me!” The nun removed a set of large keys hooked together on an enormous iron ring as she headed for the dark stairwell leading to the basement.
At the bottom of the stairs, Bonnie found cells with hard wooden doors with small windows that were closed tightly separating the occupants not only from the world but also from all sense of hope.
‘Daffy” was dropped onto the cold stone floor by the Solidarity Sisters. As Bonnie was pulled from the room the nun slammed the door and inserted the iron key into the lock, and as it turned, it swept away the last memory of Daffy, as she was never seen again.
Bonnie stood stunned as her ears filled with the rising sound of screaming that seemed to come from all around her. It was then that she realized that she had not descended into a basement but into hell where the tortured souls of young girls writhed in agony in a pocket of suffering as the outside world marked time, ignorant of the suffering a stone’s throw away.
Back in her bed, Bonnie sobbed. It seemed only a short time ago that Bonnie was a schoolgirl and life had not yet shown its darker side.
Bonnie’s father was a Sergeant in the Air Force and a full-blooded Navajo, and she had lived the early years of her life traveling from one military base to another. Then her mother and father separated and Bonnie returned with her mother to live with her strict Irish Catholic family in Long Island, New York.
It was during this time that her life began to change for the worse. At the age of nine a friend’s older brother molested Bonnie, and her efforts to speak out about this were dismissed as an overactive imagination. In 1965 at the age of fourteen, Bonnie was kidnapped by a security guard, thrown into his car and driven to his house. Held against her will, Bonnie fought with all of her strength and pushed him off the bed.
Finally free of her attacker Bonnie fled back to her home, but the scars of her abuse at the age of nine made her a hostage of silence.
In an attempt to speak out about the trauma, Bonnie wrote of her experience in a letter to one of her classmates. Bonnie was then called into the principal’s office and admonished her for lying. She was then expelled.
Bonnie fought depression and thoughts of suicide as her mother remained unsympathetic. Bonnie ran away after hearing a conversation between her mother and her aunt, but police soon found her and took her to the children and family shelter in Long Island.
The next morning, Bonnie appeared before a judge. She was confident that once she told her story, the judge would release her and jail her abuser. Instead, the judge sentenced Bonnie to St. Anne’s Institute until her graduation, which was several years away. Her crime was listed as being incorrigible.
As Bonnie and the three girls handcuffed with her approached the prison that would steal every waking moment of their happiness for the next two and half years, Bonnie felt her heart sink to its lowest depths. Stone walls towered before them topped with barbed wire, and the entrance to this hell was framed by an impenetrable wrought iron gate. The gate swung slowly open, as its motion seemed to rob time away from the four frightened girls. As the van pulled into the ancient courtyard it came to an abrupt stop and the four were led toward the entrance to their new prison. What loomed before them could only be described as an ominous and dark castle, its brick structure cemented together with the silent cries of young girls, desperate and hopeless, trapped in the grip of evil.
Once inside, the girls were greeted by the nun charged with processing new “inmates” as the girls who were sent to St. Anne’s were called. She coldly told the girls they would refer to all the Sisters of the Good Shepherd there as “Mother.” Talking was not allowed unless permission was given. The girls were allowed access to books but only on a limited basis during the basic classes offered.
In the dormitories the girls were not allowed to talk or read and were forced to sit with their hands in their laps. Smoking was allowed and many girls adopted this habit, as it was the only chance for limited conversation without supervision.
As the nun finished her orientation speech, Bonnie and the other girls were led through the dark and damp hallways of the evil castle and into a room. It was here that they were subjected to a rough medical exam that included a full cavity search.
In the dormitory where inmate’s awaited assignment to their “unit”, Bonnie was indoctrinated to the vacuum of compassion that would permeate her stay.
The girls were forced perform cruel forms of penance to atone for their “sins,” and on many occasions were made to kneel and place their hands in front of them with their fingers spread facing inwards. The girls were then made to place their knees on top of their fingers and raise their buttocks as high in the air as possible.
They were forced to scrub uneven brick floors until their knees bled. Sexual attacks could not be avoided by many of the girls.
Bonnie was frequently stricken by asthma attacks but not allowed an inhaler. Girls who tried to help her during these life threatening episodes were told to “leave her alone because she was just trying to get attention,” and were punished for extending a hand to help.
Bonnie also experienced severe physical abuse at the hands of both the Solidarity Sisters and the Sisters themselves. She remembers being struck on the back of the head so hard by one of the sisters that her vision was blurred for days.
Bonnie’s days at St. Anne’s Institute were an unrelenting wave of despair and humiliation. Visitations were limited by the Sisters, and Bonnie had only rare visits from her family totaling three times in the two and a half years she was imprisoned at Anne’s Institute.
Lifelong friendships are often forged within the depths of a struggle against the tide of evil that seeks to consume your soul and banish your self-esteem to oblivion. For Bonnie Armijo that lifelong friend has been with Diana O’Hara and the two have shared the tears and the laughter of true friendship over the years, but they continue to be haunted by the memories that are the ghosts of St. Anne’s
These ghosts follow them to this day and the memories of the abuse they suffered flavors their life with a desperate sense that even though decades have passed, there is a part of them that remains trapped in that prison of stone walls and barbed wire hearts where their innocence was stolen as young girls.
The struggle to free that part of these victims is one that has become one I have become committed to being a part of. Bonnie Armijo continues to fight for an acknowledgement of what happened to her as she struggles with Multiple Sclerosis and is a passionate and committed advocate to finding a cure for this disease.
If you want to learn more about the fight for justice for the survivors of the American Magdalene Laundries you can join the cause on Facebook at American Victims of Magdalenes and Good Shepherd, and Survivors of Good Shepherd/Magdalene Laundries in North America and on Google +: Survivors of Magdalene/Good Shepherd Laundries.
To understand the Magdalene/Good Shepherd Laundries and the suffering that took place there, it is important to see through the eyes of a survivor. Director Peter Mullan’s 2002 film, “The Magdalene Sisters.” Many survivors say he captures the experience so well that they cannot watch without reliving their own worst nightmare. Please watch and think of these young girls who have been sentenced to a lifetime of pain and suffering.