Some of the girls were runaways. Some were unwed pregnant girls. Others simply were labeled "incorrigible" by their families or were viewed as "moral threats" by the Church. It didn't matter how they arrived, for the thousands of young girls and women in the United States and abroad, once the doors of the "Magdalene Laundries" closed behind them, life would never be the same.
The institutions were named after Mary Magdalene of the bible, and were started in the Middle Ages by the Catholic Church to serve as convents for "repentant prostitutes." However, between 1922 and 1996, many of these Church-run, state-approved facilities were really operating as parallel prison systems.
The greatest number of Magdalene Laundries was in Ireland. It has been estimated that around 30,000 women were admitted during the 150-year history of the Magdalene institutions. The Catholic church and the four religious orders that ran Magdalene Laundries in Ireland were the Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Mercy, Good Shepherd Sisters, and the Sisters of our Lady of Charity.
The institutions were called 'laundries' because they were financially supported by taking in the laundry of nearby businesses and the Catholic Church. The girls and women provided the slave labor. Mary Merit, a participant in the "Sex in a Cold Climate," documentary was raised in an orphanage in Ireland. In 1947 she was ordered to go to the Magdalene Laundry known as High Park convent in Dublin. "We were to 'make ourselves clean' by doing dirty laundry. You were just supposed to wash and iron the clothes, and work the big machines. We worked every single day. We never got one solid penny." Merit says she was held in the laundry for 14 years. Her only crime was being an orphan. "We were told to work and pray and in time we would be forgiven." They were just never told how much time. Some remained their entire lives and died behind the walls.
Some of the laundries had orphanages attached to them and the children were those of the Magdalene girls. Having a baby out of wedlock was considered the ultimate sin. Often the babies were separated from their mothers, sometimes immediately after birth, and sometimes, as revealed in the movie Philomena, a young mother spent more than a year bonding with her child before he or she was taken from her and given up for adoption.
The last Magdalene Laundry in Ireland closed in 1996. In 1999, the Irish government succumbed to pressure and created the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA) whose purpose was to investigate child abuse within Irish institutions. Similar convents operated in the United States, Australia and Canada.
Diana O'Hara was born in Buffalo New York, and grew up in and out of foster homes. Her alcoholic mother deemed her "incorrigible" and at age 12 she was sent to the Magdalene Laundry operated by the Good Shepherd Sisters. "Walking into that place was like being shot back in time," according to O'Hara. "The walls were 12 feet high and topped with wire. The whole place had a series of tunnels and you couldn't see the outside world." Soon after entering the convent she was given an exam to determine if she was a virgin. During the "exam," the middle-aged doctor in the brown rumpled suit, raped O'Hara. "I can picture that room and that day as vividly as if it was yesterday," O'Hara said.
Patricia Noel was born in Washington D.C. Her mother died when she was seven and her father was a heroin addict. In 1949 at age 12 she was sent to live at the House of Good Shepherd, a Magdalene convent in Baltimore Maryland.
Upon entering the convent she was told her name would no longer be 'Patricia' and she was instructed to pick a new name. "I chose Teresa because it was my mother's name." Like Diana O'Hara, she was given an exam to determine if she was a virgin. "Virgins were sent to be with the 'little girls' and those who weren't virgins were sent to the wing with the 'big girls,' regardless of age, and the two groups were never permitted to talk or even look at each other." Some of the big girls who'd been there for a long time became known as 'sodality girls.' They wore a special band around their necks, and they were entitled to extra privileges in exchange for doing the nuns' 'dirty work.'
When asked about the living conditions, Noel said, "It was hell. The nuns were like Nazis. I hated them. I think it was my hatred of them that kept me going." She was not a Catholic and one day she refused to answer a Catechism question from one of the nuns. "They could do what they wanted to my body but they could not have my mind or my allegiance." She threw a pencil and it hit the nun's habit. "I had very long hair and Mother Emmanuel grabbed me by my hair, and she and several of the 'sodality girls' dragged me to the shower room. Mother Emmanuel shaved my head and several of the 'sodality girls' girls beat me very badly.
The nuns also locked the girls alone in the concrete shower room, in pitch black darkness. "It was terrifying because you could hear and feel the rats, but you couldn't see them." Noel was released after her after sister located her and came to get her out.
Another former resident of a U.S. Magdalene Laundry, Bonnie Green, feels it's time to let people know the truth about what she endured. In 1965 she was living in Long Island New York with her single mother. At age fifteen the security guard at her high school tried to rape her. She escaped from him and told a friend at school, who in turn told the school principal. She was expelled from school for "trying to ruin the man's reputation."
After her expulsion she was referred to as a "PINS" (person in need of supervision). Four months later she arrived at Saint Anne's convent in Albany New York, which was run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.
"It was like being in a third world country," according to Green. She was asthmatic and often had difficulty breathing due to all the chemicals used in the convent laundry. "One day I passed out. When I recovered a nun hit me on the head so hard my vision was blurry for three days."
Some of the girls weren't as strong as others. A friend of Greene's whose nickname was 'Daffy' tried to jump out of a window on one of the upper floors. Several girls caught her before she made it out of the window. "She was dragged down the hall and down some concrete steps. Green said, "I never saw her again. Ever." Green was allowed to leave the institution shortly before her eighteenth birthday. "My time at that place affected my entire life."
Green's sentiment is shared by many of the women who now refer to themselves as "Magdalene survivors." There were approximately 63 Magdalene Laundries in the United States. The last once closed in 2002.
Now, at age 77, Magdalene survivor Patricia Noel says, "Some of the women feel ashamed and won't talk about what happened to them, but I've never been ashamed. I want the world to know what happened."
For more information go to: http://www.magdalenelaundries.com/do.htm