Forgotten Australians, poetry

Summer’s Cloud

by Janice Konstantinidis (guest author) on 15 November, 2011

Janice Konstantinidis was an inmate in Mount Saint Canice, Sandy Bay, Tasmania, where she worked as an unpaid child labourer in the Good Shepherd Sisters’ commercial laundry. Janice now lives in California in USA. Here, she shares one of her recent poems. Continue reading “Summer’s Cloud”

Forgotten Australians, memories

The nuns thought we were criminals

Maureen Cuskelly shares some detailed recollections of her experiences at St Aidan’s, Bendigo, where she lived from the age of eight to 17.

Maureen, one of seven children, was sent to Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne at the age of two after her mother was admitted to hospital. Here she shares some of her later experiences at St Aidan’s.

Life at St Aidans, Good Shepherd Convent Bendigo
Some of my Story
 

Hell No, We Won’t Go. 1968.  According to Time magazine this is the year that shaped a generation1. The anti-war battle cry: Hell No, We Won’t Go spells out the attitude to the Vietnamese war, conscription and restriction of liberty. Western youth sing about love, freedom and peace. It’s the year of liberation but not for everyone.

I enter St Aidans Good Shepherd Convent (Bendigo, Vic) singing the words to the Beatles song Hey Jude: ‘Don’t make it bad, take a sad song and make it better….. Hey Jude don’t be afraid…… And any time you feel the pain, Hey Jude, refrain, Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders’.

Petite build, I weigh 40kg. Mousy brown hair with brown almost black deep set eyes I am not a pretty girl. Maybe I could be described as attractive. Small for my size and young for my age, I look more like an 11 year old.  I just had my birthday at home with my mother, and five brothers and sisters. It is three days after my 13th birthday. I didn’t celebrate my birthday. Somehow my mother did not celebrate these things. When I was young I thought she forgot but as I got older I knew she had a sharp mind and did not forget. Birthdays had traumatic memories for her and she just chose not to remember.

There were six of us living in Echuca with mum before I entered the home. As a child I used to fantasize that our family  were famous just because we were such a big family. In primary school I had a brother or sister in every class and our school went up to year 8. I imagined we would be famous like the Enid Blyton series  The Secret Seven.

Veronica used to live with us in Echuca too  but she went into the ‘home’ in January.  It is because of Veronica that I am standing here now facing institutional life.  Veronica came home for the May school holidays and shocked to find my mentally ill mother treating me so badly she declared

She’s not doing that to you. You’re coming back with me.

Hey Jude, don’t be afraid… I hum to myself.  It’s a song of affirmation. I cling to this as I learn the ropes of this institution and the nun’s rules, “be modest girl, don’t laugh.  What are you smiling about? Don’t run girl, walk like a lady. Don’t talk like that! Girls don’t sweat. Horses sweat, men perspire, women glow.  Don’t be proud, you’ve got nothing to be proud of dear”. 

I work at following the rules. I hum, Hey Jude.  It’s the top single of the year.

The beginning of the day is the sound of Mother Rita’s key in the lock. I don’t realize it yet but soon this will become one of the chilling sounds I fear.  We assemble in silence by our beds until the bell goes indicating morning Mass is finished. Breakfast is toast and urn tea. Mother Rita announces

Take the new girl to Mother Theresa for her morning duties.

Can she use a polisher? Mother Theresa asks Veronica.  Mother Theresa  seems to know who I am. I think this is a welcome.

No mother.

Well she can sweep the concert hall until she learns. Someone show this girl how to polish that floor, I want to see it reflect my face. The girls giggle. Who would want to look at a reflection of Mother Theresa’s big head?

The concert hall is big, I don’t know how big really. I guess it could seat hundreds of people. It is the biggest area to the cleaned. Chairs line the perimeter of the room and the stage is screened off with brick red velvet curtains. A bigger girl takes me to show me the ropes.

Use this broom and sweep it thoroughly, the older girl  tells me, the dust shows up.  And, move those chairs out and do under them thoroughly. Fluff and dust accumulate there and you will be in for it if Mother Rita sees any.

I walk up and down the room, pushing the heavy broom ahead of me.

You blockhead, don’t do it that way, work across the room or you won’t know where you’ve been, instructs my chaperone. She’s watching me, not helping.  Next, she wheels out the industrial polisher.

 Okay, make this floor shine.

The polisher is heavy. I grip the handles awkwardly and the beast flies across the room, dragging me with it.

Let go, let go, she yells.

I release the machine. It stops dead just as quickly as it took off.  I am white with shock. She laughs.

Here, I’ll show you, grip the handle lightly and the machine will be easier to control. Work it slowly, move the machine a little to the right and a little to the left.  Small circles does it.

Gingerly, I grasp the handle, which I now realize holds the controls. The machine hums, the vibrations work through my fingers. It’s like a jolting movement shaking my hands. With a mind of it’s own the machine lurches across the room in a frog-leap fashion into the chairs. They scatter like skittles.

Work it to the right like I told you, left and right. My instructor guides me again. Don’t let it go straight ahead. It’s not meant to thrust forward. Ha ha, it’s not a man you know. Ha ha.

I don’t know what she means but I get control of the beast and work the floor. After a long period of time she calls Come on, that’ll do. She  jumps down from the stage where she’s been sitting, legs swinging idly, watching.  It’s hours of work, you’ll get used to it, just sweep one day and polish the next. And don’t forget to dust the window sills and the piano. We better get to school.

A new girl. Mrs Raeburn announces to the class. They already know this. We got ready together this morning, said our prayers in chorus and ate breakfast together didn’t we. It’s hardly likely they did not notice me!

Yes, she continues. Mother Rita has told me all about you. I won’t tolerate trouble in my class. Pointing towards an empty desk, sit there while I get you your sets.

Mrs. Raeburn is the one supervising teacher on our side. A retired elderly teacher, she is from the outside. Mrs. Raeburn is the only outside person that visits the convent. Small, old she wears clunky black wedged heeled shoes and black stockings with every outfit. Her clothing is a knitted skirt and cardigan buttoned to the neck. Her grey fine hair held tautly in a bun matches the no nonsense look. I quickly learn, on every issue she takes Mother Rita’s side.

What year are you in?

Year 8

I come to understand that the schooling is an internal arrangement. Like everything else. We don’t leave the facility and no-one comes in. Our schooling is through the Correspondence School, Melbourne. The school’s purpose, originally, was to provide teacher training by correspondence course for trainee teachers unable to attend the Melbourne Teacher’s College. According to historical records it expanded to secondary level accommodating bush kids, circus kids who were not in one place long enough to go to school. And children in youth training centres. I guess we fit into the last group. Certainly the nuns thought we were criminals. They described us as vulgar, uncontrollable and unable to be trusted. Mother Rita’s view was that if we made good in the world we would get a ‘good office job’’.

By 1911, 600 student-teachers were studying by correspondence.

Students first began using the services of the school in 1914, after an urgent letter from a mother in a remote area concerned about the prospects of educating her two sons.  A small group of six trainee teachers volunteered to draw up sets of lessons for the boys who received work every fortnight’ 2.

I’m getting the hang of the routine of the home. Breakfast in silence, do chores – sweep, polish and dust. It’s the regularity that I find comforting during the day. I think about my family in Echuca. Colin is the oldest it’s true. I am the middle child I know this as well. Seven of us. Colin, Terry and Veronica are older than me and Michael, Mary and Robert are younger. I don’t feel like a middle child.   I am the older sister to Michael, Mary and Robert which makes me an older child too. The oldest of the youngest. At night I lie awake fretting about Mick, Mary and Robbie. Wracked with guilt for deserting them I toss and turn. My mother is too ill to care for them. How will they get on?

The responsibility for their welfare means I feel neither like a child or an adult. Feverish with worry I ruminate incessantly like this all night. There is no end to it. I do not hear from my family and I cannot settle. Veronica tells me she feels abandoned too. I am reminded of Mother Rita’s words when I arrived at the Parlour door.

Come in dear, you are not to be telling anybody what you have done. Its nothing to be proud of you know. Her pencil thin lips signal how silent we are expected to be. The message is clear, you have a shocking past, sinful child, don’t be telling the other girls about your filthy history.

What have I done? There is no sympathy and no-one to talk to. If a girl complains to the nuns ‘I don’t want to be here’, she is promptly told, ‘we didn’t ask for you to come here either, you know’.

In spite of the agonizing at night I am relieved to feel safe, physically safe from attack. The mundane routine of institutional life is preferable to the unpredictable chaos of life with my disturbed mother. I settle comfortably into the routine.

During the day I work in the laundry. It’s an inferno in summer but emits comforting warmth in winter. I stand on a box to reach the mangle.  The linen is scalding hot; the intense steam scorches my face if I get too close.  If I am too slow to react the garment goes round the mangle a second time coming back hotter than before. It’s altar linen from the local churches. Hard starched cotton. The effect is like trying to grip a pumice stone. Hard to grip and harder to hold.  The knack is to pick the corners of the revolving linen quickly with your fingers tips as it comes round the mangle. The quicker the better, the girls tell me, it will save your fingers getting burnt.

I’ve mastered the polisher and my job in the laundry is sheet folding. It is  my forte. The sheets are dried and ironed simultaneously as they rotate through the sheet mangle. This mangle is more sophisticated than the one used for the church linen. It requires speed and accuracy to feed the sheets through so the ‘old ladies’ do it. Sheet-folding, on the other hand, requires skill and speed.  Working in pairs we hold an end each, fold the length in half, pull it taut, quarter it, shake out again, smooth the linen down proficiently; do a pirouette meeting in the middle to hand the folded sheet to the girl working with us as the other end. It’s a routine of precision.  The last three folds are completed by one girl on the folding table. This routine is for every sheet and there are hundreds of them. The sheets are stacked eight high on the table then loaded into trolleys.

The old ladies let the sheets mount up during the day for us to do after school. With lightning speed we get the stack of unfolded sheets down. My friend Theresa Forster and I are expert at sheet folding. We do this for an hour and a half after school most days. It’s a physical workout all right; we skip in the middle, making of game of it challenging ourselves to beat our best times.

The physical work did not come easy to me though. I recall my first day in the laundry. Arriving at St Aidans in the school holidays I am immediately put to work. Mother Mercy finds me sitting on the folding tables.

Get down child. Tables are not for sitting on. Her face is like a blustering wind when she speaks.

Can I go to the toilet please Mother?

We don’t speak like that, It’s unladylike.

I need to go, what do I say?

Could I be excused please?

There is no need to be explicit. A tilt of the head as you ask indicates it is of a private nature.

I run to ‘Cosy Corner’, even the toilet is incognito. I stay on the toilet as long as I can. For the first week I go to the toilet every hour. I need to sit down and it’s the only resting place there is. I am not up to an eight hour working day. Mother Mercy sends someone to get me, quick hurry you’re in for it for skiving off.

Mondays are the worst days in the laundry. The personal laundry from the boarders at Girton College arrive. Each student’s clothing is bagged separately.

Come on, Mother Mercy says, empty them out and count them

I turn the bag upside down and shake it. Out tumble smelly socks, sports gear, uniforms and dirty underwear. Girls’ underwear stiff with dried blood. Seven days of dirty underwear and clothes.  Urrgghh. I hate this job. Yuk. Now I know why so many girls rushed to the mangle when we came in.

I pick up each pair of panties by the corners trying to avoid the stains. The smell cannot be avoided.  It’s our job to audit the personal items. Each piece of clothing is counted, ticked off the sheet and put back in the bags for laundering. I would rather fold sheets for hours than do this!

I spend 4.5 years at St Aidan’s doing schooling by correspondence. I type up my school assignments on the big clunky Olivetti typewriters. One assignment for every subject every week. Lots of typing and ribbon changing. Mother Mercy teaches us how to type with cloth tied over the keyboard so we cannot see the keys. I become a touch typist in spite of the clunky machines. The assignments are sent to the Correspondence School each week. I clean in the mornings before school. Most of Saturday is spending cleaning the dormitories and bathrooms. After school and school holidays I work in the laundry.

When I leave I do not know how to manage money, shop for food, cook, catch public transport and I do not know my way around the town I have lived in for the last 5 years.  There is little support for ‘homies’ when we leave.  For a short while I wander the streets looking for love. This nearly ends in disaster. I talk the welfare into letting me go back to school to finish year 12. They fund me and I live in a boarding house with strange people. Other misfits like me. A pale lady who never leaves her room, a grey bearded man who talks to himself all day; a man who drinks too much who asks me if I am on the contraceptive pill. The elderly owners of the boarding house go north for winter and leave their divorced son-in-law in charge. This nearly ends in disaster as well. I fry peas and uncooked rice in a pan but it is un-chewable. Life is daunting.

Eventually I learn how to boil rice, catch a bus to school and shop. Over the next two years I attend three schools and it takes me three attempts to complete year 12.

Today I am well educated. I have four qualifications and have worked in the mental health field for 37 years. I love this work but I have terrible arthritis in my hands. It is a limiting condition that restricts my life considerably. Too much work as a child, living in cold harsh conditions, folding sheets, polishing and scrubbing floors has meant my hands have aged years ahead of their time. Altogether I have spent over 10 years of my childhood in homes; six years in the Good Shepherd Convent in Abbotsford and four and a half years with the Good Shepherds in Bendigo. As time wears on my hands wear out. The years of repetitive work and agitations of an industrial polisher mean now that the vibrations of a car steering wheel are like small violent stabs. Today, it is difficult to grip the steering wheel for long periods of time. For years now I have been adjusting my life to accommodate my hands.  The biggest thing I miss is being able to drive to Bendigo to see my brothers and sisters. Using public transport that take most of the day to get there when a car trip is a comfortable three hours drive away is frustrating.  Being unable to hold a pen to write Christmas cards, hold cutlery, fumble and struggle to grip money to pay for groceries,  difficulty dressing and being unable to change my grandson’s nappy. These are the daily things I struggle with.  If I do too much in a day I can hardly hold my cutlery.  Hand surgery, some home changes and life style restrictions all help a bit.

The lyrics from the Bee Gees songs still swim around in my head:

Where are the girls / I left all behind /The spicks and the specks/ Of the girls on my mind/ Where is the girl I loved all along/ The girl that I loved / She’s gone she’s gone/ All of my life I call yesterday/ The spicks and the specks …
 
Luuv they don’t even know how to say it.
Disgusting singers. That Tom Jones and Elvis Presley they’re corrupting innocent  girls with their pulsating and gesticulating hips.
 
We’d walk around the grounds laughing and singing  You’ve lost that loooving feelin, oh that loving feelin, you’ve lost that loving feelin, now its gone, gone, gone, oh, oh, oh.
(The Righteous Brothers, ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’).
On occasion fights used to break out over whether Tom Jones was better than Elvis. The new girls would bring new songs and stories of the ‘latest’. I remember when Johnny Farnham was a new comer to the pop scene.  He would be, alternately, drooled over and fought over. Having been in the home a while I did not know much of the outside scene so I faked my knowledge of the singers and songs. No-one noticed and no-one cared. Mother Rita’s disapproval of them guaranteed we idolized them even more. To sing of love and freedom was our rebellion. Today, I imagine the girls are still singing the songs:- unrestricted, loud, bold and free.
 

 Those were the days my friend / We’d thought they’d never end / We’d sing and dance / Forever and a day. We’d live the life we’d choose / We’d fight and never lose / For we were young / And sure to have our way … La La La La La La La La La La La La … Those were the days, my friend those were the days.

(Mary Hopkin. ‘Those were the Days my Friend’).

 


[1] Time 1968. A Pictorial History. Special Collectors Edition.[2] https//www.distance.vic.edu.au/about/abthist.htmVeronica and I chat for hours about the wonderful girls we grew up with. We wonder what they are doing?  We imagine they still sing the songs of our youth.  We know well how adolescent pleasures were restricted in the home. Mother Rita scorned all pop music.  

art, Forgotten Australians, memories, painting

What Mrs Letherby did for us

Artist Rachael Romero, who was in the The Pines, the Convent of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Plympton, South Australia shares her painting of an inspirational teacher.

Rachael explains:

Briefly, a kind old woman was brought in to supervise our studies. Her name was Mrs Mary Letherby, she was only there a week or two.

We expected her to think of us as defiled like the nuns did. But she did something nobody else had done–she treated us as human.

She listened to us and accepted us untarnished by the atrocities we’d experienced. We were amazed.

This gave us hope when we had none.

After we got out several of us went to see her. Her compassion changed our lives.

Although she died not long after she has inspired me all my life.

22×30″ copyright Racheal Romero
documents, Forgotten Australians

Schwarten Inquiry into Westbrook

‘The Superintendent said, “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice”  and banged boy 90’s head several times against the tin wall’. Read the full 1961 report of the Inquiry into Westbrook Farm Home for Boys by Stipendiary Magistrate, Mr AE Schwarten.

The report was conducted after an ‘incident which occurred on Sunday, 14th May, 1961, at the Farm Home for Boys, Westbrook, in which approximately 36 inmates of the said Home were involved and number of whom escaped’.

The report was provided to the National Museum of Australia by Al Fletcher, author of Brutal: Surviving Westbrook Boys Home by Al Fletcher as told to Cheryl Jorgensen. The report has since been published online by the Queensland Government.

Download a copy of the 79-page Westbrook Farm Home for Boys Inquiry Report (PDF 6.92MB)

Two boys seen through bars across a window at Westboork Boys Home
art, Forgotten Australians, memories, painting

‘The stain is indelible’

by Rachael Romero (guest author) on 5 August, 2011

Artist Rachael Romero, who was in the The Pines, the Convent of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Plympton, South Australia shares her painting Pines Quadrangle dark with station of cross detail.

Rachael describes its significance:

It was dark the first time I crossed that cement quadrangle–at first I thought I was on the deck of an old ship. I had entered a new confinement.

It was clear that I had been condemned–that my prior life was over. That I was despised by my new jailers.
That the life that loomed before me was now even more dreadful . The idea that I would have to endure an unbearable seven years until
I reached twenty-one and had the power of my own volition was agonizing.

They knew not what they did.
Now they wash their hands, but the stain is indelible.

Painting of two girls with cross and nun in dark quadrangle
Pines Quadrangle dark with station of cross detail by Rachael Romero
Forgotten Australians, memories

Shock treatment

by Gwen (Sandra) Robinson (guest author) on 22 June, 2011

‘My heart broke for these defenseless people and still does today.’ Gwen (Sandra) Robinson was placed in Wolston Park Hospital, Tufnell Home and Home of the Good Shepherd Mitchelton. Here, she remembers her experiences at Wolston Park.

Gwen writes:

My name is Gwen Robinson preferably known as Sandra and I am going to write a little about the Shock Treatment that I seen given to patients at Wolston Park Mental Hospital also known as Goodna Mental Hospital. First I will tell you a little about myself and how I got there. I was put in there for being an absconder, better known as an habitual run-away, and not because there was anything mentally wrong with me which was proven by the I.Q. test that I did there and it came out as above average. I had the brains to be an accountant, which is what I wanted to be, but I was never given the education to follow that profession. There is a letter in my files written by a doctor to the Childrens Department stating that Wolston Park was non-theraputic to me and I should be out in a hostel and doing a business course. Needless to say that never happened and the Childrens Department just kept me there to be kept drugged up. We were given a drug called peraldahyde and it had to be given in a glass vial as it melted plastic. The mind shudders as to what it has done to my body being given to me as a young teenager. We were also given other mind altering drugs which kept us immobilised, which led to some of us wetting or dirtying ourselves as we could not move. It also left the staff free range to do whatever they wanted when we were in this state. I have cigarette burns on my arms from the staff and other scars.

I absconded from Tufnell Home and ended up in The Good Shepherd at Mitchelton and then I got out of there and was sent to Karalla House. I never got out of there but was locked up for more than a month in solitary confinement and when we got out of these rooms we came out as mad as hell and caused trouble and then this led me to be put in the Mental Hospital as it was the most secure place in QLD to keep me. I got out of there and was caught months later and was locked in a room for 2 weeks for the male staff to have access to as this was my punishment. I was also told at this time that if I escaped again that there was a lot of suicides in the Bremmer River. I believed them as I thought if you can lock me up with the Criminally Insane, and no one is doing anything about it, then you could do exactly as you pleased. Needless to say that I did escape from there one more time and was never caught, but I lived a life of being someone else as I thought I would be murdered. If anyone is interested I could explain that to them. In my mind I have never deserved any of this treatment as my only crime was being an orphan and being severly bashed at home and sometimes so bad that the school took me to the Hospital as I had blood and welts all over my body.

I cannot remember the number of the Ward that I was in when I witnessed the horror of seeing people being strapped down for shock treatment and also seeing them come out of the room when it was done. I am sitting here writing this with tears in my eyes as the pure horror of what these people went through comes back to me. It was one of the cruelist things that I have ever witnessed. The patients would fight the staff and come and hide behind other people, such as myself, and beg us to help and protect them. There was nothing I could do and they would be dragged away by staff and they would be begging and pleading to the staff not to do this to them. When they came out of the rooms after Shock Treatment they would be left lying on the beds and this is when I seen male staff interferring and doing sexual things to some of the patients while they were unconscious. Even today thinking about it makes my stomach heave. I have always been quite a strong person and have had a strong sense of survival, but what I seen in this place and also had done to me has had the worst effect on me even these many years later. Sometimes for days and even weeks these patients who had Shock Treatment would walk around in a daze with strange eyes, like they couldn’t focus, and also loss of memory. They were forever asking others what their names were and where they were. Another thing is that they were very skiddish as hiding behind other patients, such as myself, so as not to be noticed by staff and if staff came towards some it was like they were frozen with fear and I witnessed some patients just pass out with this fear and some of the staff thought this was quite funny. My heart broke for these defenseless people and still does today. Everyone dreaded Shock Treatment days but some of the staff loved it.

The Government in QLD. will not compensate any of us who were children placed in Adult Institutions or who were locked up with the Criminally Insane. They keep saying that the Redress Scheme has closed but they fail to realise is that these Mental Institutions were not covered by the Redress Scheme as it only covered places in the Terms of Reference for the Forde Inquiry and this Forde Inquiry did not let us speak of these Mental Institutions and we were told that they would never be included as it was a seperate issue. None of us have ever found a lawyer who is smart enough or has the fight to take on the Government or Health Department on this issue. Even the legal part of the Senate Inquiry says we should be looked at again for compensation as it was wrong that we were excluded as we were put there by the Children’s Department.

art, Forgotten Australians, painting, poetry

‘A Severed Life’

by Rachael Romero (guest author) on 8 June, 2011

Rachael Romero, who was in the The Pines, the Convent of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Plympton, South Australia, shares her drawing A Severed Life.

Rachael writes about her art work:

Those responsible for our incarceration were looking in the mirror.
How many lives cauterized?
How many hands maimed?
Girls not protected but stained by unwarranted and self-righteous religious and civil presumption of guilt.
Their persecuters were looking in the mirror.

‘Magdalene Laundry Convent of Good Shepherd Crown’ by Rachael Romero copyright 2011
Forgotten Australians, memories, painting

‘The Mangle’

by Rachel Romero (guest author) on 18 May, 2011

New York artist and film-maker, Rachael Romero, and former resident of ‘The Pines’, Sisters of the Good Shepherd Convent, Plympton, South Australia shares a page from her book which will be published this year.

Rachael’s book is a series of prints documenting the life in the Convent of the Good Shepherd. Regarding her work below, The Mangle, Rachael says,

You … need to imagine immense heat, little ventilation and the din of thundering machinery.

The Mangle. Copyright Rachael Romero, 2011
Forgotten Australians, poetry

‘Pines Indoctrination’

by Rachael Romero (guest author) on 2 May, 2011

In 1971, Rachael Romero, soon after her release from The Pines (Sisters of the Good Shepherd Convent), Plympton, SA, wrote a poem about how it felt to be indoctrinated.

Of Pine Indoctrination, copyright Rachael Romero

Of Pines Indoctrination

A tattooed mind
with fear and cold
and logic warped
to please false aims

a cringing heart
a slaughtered soul
a bleeding confiscated mind

Deadened, buried lay my will
Hushed with fear and violent threat
Unwanted, stifled, broken, ill
stumbling on a stormy deck.

copyright Rachael Romero

Forgotten Australians, memories

In the beginning

by Wendy Sutton (guest author) on 19 April, 2011

Dr Wendy Sutton, who was an inmate in The Pines (Convent of the Good Shepherd, Plympton) shares her experiences, including how she met her life-long friend.

 I have not seen the Magdalene Sisters movie, but I have seen the trailer. And for me, the chilling scene where the young girl is simply left at the Convent and the door is closed behind her made me shiver, as this was a feeling that I remember all too well.

I was taken to the Pines after being “appropriately expelled” from my high school.  That was one long day.  That morning I awoke to find my (social) Father home from work. This never happened on a week day as he was always off to the army barracks.  My Mother told me not to dress in my uniform, too late, I had, and I flew out the door with a desperate gripping feeling.  I think I walked to school that day, usually I rode my pushbike. My gut was in turmoil, I was stupefied and fearful, but through out my childhood this feeling was my constant companion. However, I knew something was up. I was unsettled that morning at school.

I was at my school desk when my name was blasted over the loud speaker, “Wendy Sutton come to the office.” There was Mum and Dad  – a first – sitting in the Headmistresses’ hallway. Mrs. R. was her name. Into the office we all marched like good little soldiers single file. R. sat matronly behind her magnificent desk with my parents sitting on the opposite side discussing this ‘uncontrollable’ person in the room – me.

I was numb. I sat and looked on as they all decided my fate. It was  signed, sealed and delivered. I was officially expelled from Strathmont Girls Technical High School at age 13. The red-headed deputy headmistress was loitering out side R.’s office, and as my parents and Miss R. shook hands and passed solemn pleasantry’s amongst themselves, Red gestured me over to her.

She looked at me like a sad-eyed spaniel, with her head cocked to one side and biting her lip, she took my hand and said, “For what it is worth Wendy, I am so sorry.” She was kind, and so was R., although they did not agree with my parents’ judgement concerning me, they still allowed the process to continue. “It’s for the best” they said.

That day was filled with erratic emotions,  I collected all my books and belongings. I remember my entire class rallied around giving me suggestions on how to “run away” or “escape”. A friend, Glen H., offered me $2.00 to catch a train and get as far away as possible so my parents would never find me. My physical education teacher hugged me and cried as she asked what she could do to help me. She then gathered the class in the sports shed to wish me well and everyone was howling. My dearest friends clung to me like bees to honey. It was awful but at the same time wonderful to know how these people loved me.

“I am only going for three weeks” … I blubbered through my snot and tears. I was weak, lost but I soon clicked into disassociate mode which I knew how to do so well by age 13. I think I walked home, talk about the prey walking into the den! I was 13 for God’s sake, a very psychologically, spiritually and physically wounded young girl. My teachers knew this as they constantly had me in the office asking questions about my obviously battered body. Of course, I always fell off a swing, fell over, had a fight with my sister …

All I remember next was that silent drive in the little green Ford to the Pines and up the long driveway. I have a reoccurring dream of that long driveway… but it is a positive dream now-a-days taking me along a long and winding driveway filled with grand exotic trees and powerful waterfalls which lead to my home. A home that has not materialised to this day, mind you!

Then with the same poof and pageantry as with R., I was handed over to the nuns in total silence. This is where I felt the impact of the Magdalene Sisters movie trailer, when that door was slammed behind me and I was alone not knowing what the hell was going on. I was never informed! I was silently aching.  I had literally been thrown away … yet again. I just kept thinking it is only for three weeks, yeh right! Three weeks led to 12 months!

It was as though I was in that cold empty room for hours when Mother Superior came in and handed me a tidy bundle of drab looking clothes and instructed me to undress. She took my “outside” clothes and she then ushered me into a damn hot disinfectant bath, I will never forget it. Mother – silent but with a stern look on her face- scrubbed me down from head to toe with a bristled scrubbing brush. I was filthy from sin apparently. But, I was a virgin. I was molested by a close family friend – but my Mother did not believe me – and violently raped at 13, but still a virgin to consensual sex.  I did not smoke nor do drugs.

According to my Mum I was uncontrollable, and you know, I am sure I was in her eyes, I was always seeking her attention, apparently. Although I believe this to be true as my Mother did not want me, she herself came out from a sordid marriage with my 7 month old sister in tow and, me on the way! I do not blame my Mother or my Father. They did what they thought was right at the time.

The bath was done, I was told to stand, I did. Mother inspected my body.  I was red raw and crying, well snivelling really as I was too scarred to really let go. Mother passed me a towel that was almost as hard as the bristles on that damn brush! She instructed me to dress. Out she went and closed the door, gently, behind her. I was alone and empty once again wondering what on earth was going on. I consoled myself by thinking I was only in this place for 3 weeks.

Now all dressed up in my “inside clothes” looking like some orphan Annie with wet unruly hair and stinking of disinfectant, eyes red and stinging like fire! I looked about the dark brick room which housed this huge ugly bath, no furniture that I remember anyway, no windows, just two doors. Some of us Magdelene laundresses remember that bath very well.

Mother Superior materialised. It was as though she glided into the room from out of nowhere, with her long black habit flowing all round her, she startled me. “Your name will be Jane” she instructed. Then she opened THAT door which led to a concrete court yard. Before I could ask a single question the door was slammed and bolted behind me.

I remember this as if it were yesterday; as the door slammed behind me I turned to see this concrete slab enclosed by TALL fencing with barbed wire on top. I shook,  I peed myself, I just wanted to die! I could not cry out loud, but the tears streamed down my face. Other “inmates” came to inspect the new comer and some laughed at me, others looked on from a distance, but one girl stood out amongst the rest, Sharon. Sharon smiled and said “Don’t worry about them.” FORTY FOUR years later we are still the dearest of friends!

So, this was my introduction to the Pines …

documents, Forgotten Australians, memories, poetry

‘Escape Attempt’ 2

by Rachael Romero (guest author) on 13 April, 2011

Rachael Romero, who was in The Pines (Convent of the Good Shepherd, Plympton) shares one of her poems:
Rachael explains:

This was written right after I left the Pines, Convent of the Good Shepherd. My friend Agi and I decided to feign a religious calling so we could “do rosary” in the chapel before dinner. We had our eyes on a high window that was not barred. To escape through it was a dream, but we persisted for weeks before abandoning the idea.

Furtive, stealthy in the gloom The noise and cracks of a silent room Every step an inch to free life Every inch a step to new strife Fear, regret, anticipation Throbbing, pulsing, circulation. “The window’s high, the glass is thick. All I need’s a heavy brick.” “But what of noise? – Someone will hear They’ll keep us here another year” “Agi come back it is too late I hear a key at the staircase gate Kneel down, kneel down, make out to pray They may not even come this way Our chance has gone, perhaps it’s best Let’s go back, sit with the rest I had no-where to go anyway Trust “Sour Grapes” to cause delay”  copyright Rachel Romero
Escape Attempt poem

Escape Attempt

Furtive, stealthy in the gloom
The noise and cracks of a silent room
Every step an inch to free life
Every inch a step to new strife
Fear, regret, anticipation
Throbbing, pulsing, circulation.
“The window’s high, the glass is thick.
All I need’s a heavy brick.”
“But what of noise? – Someone will hear
They’ll keep us here another year”
“Agi come back it is too late
I hear a key at the staircase gate
Kneel down, kneel down, make out to pray
They may not even come this way
Our chance has gone, perhaps it’s best
Let’s go back, sit with the rest
I had no-where to go anyway
Trust “Sour Grapes” to cause delay”

copyright Rachel Romero

Forgotten Australians, poetry

For some

by Wendy Sutton (guest author) on 13 April, 2011

Wendy Sutton, a former inmate of The Pines (Convent of the Good Shepherd), Plympton, South Australia now lives in New York, USA. Here she shares her poetry.

Stuck in a Void

Are we stuck in a void, toiling with the end and the beginning?
escape then is inevitable
Or, is it a wanderlust for new experiences?

Western Culture suffocates & retards my senses and the very essence of who I am
Where do I go?
Is it deaths door of which I am finally arriving at, no satisfaction with this existence, no joy in sharing my “true” life.

Wendy Sutton Fe.2/1995 Australia

“She”
All my senses are alerted
By such a ballistic, turbulent chaos, so unsettling, and almost agonizing,
And yet so mysterious and alluring

But, without falter she continues to savage relentlessly to the end,
Only to slow such chaos for the ultimate caress of which still remains undivided. Joyous and so faithful and a never ending reliability that the very same secret devotion in which the sun rises and sets . . . . it is from the very depths of the ocean’s savagery that such delicate waves indubitably encounter the shore, with a gentle kiss.
This gives me so much strength, to know that no matter what the oceans wildest storm, the turbulence, the pain, the horror nor tragedy,
She blesses and transforms me with such courage and endurance, that through my own turbulence, I too will surely come to shore each and every time with a refreshed breathe of life, caressing the very existence of my horizons . . . . .

Wendy Sutton, NYC Monday 4th 2002

I Think

An English Manor, oh so Grand,
with an attic,
she used to frequent the attic,
from dawn till dusk,
draw she did.
A big woman, grey hair in a bun
not tight.
Pale skin, not a blemish.
Beautiful teeth,
Straight and just off white.
She smells of English rose perfume,
a gentle subtle fragrance.
She’s dead now, My Grandmother.
I never knew her,
I never met her, not once.
Wendy Sutton -Darwin 1986-

The Rose
It is a masterpiece of Nature
The perfect cup in which the rose bud is embedded, so striking and yet so
seemingly fragile,
but held sturdy via the gallantry of her thorny stem
Two polarities set to deter anything that would destroy the unfolding exquisiteness of The Rose,
such protection,,,,,, not even expected,
it just is.
Wendy Sutton 2002 New York City

Watching with Intensity

It is watching the intensity of it all pass by me,
The escalation of the era, the history of which I dance within,
the dance that goes on,
and
the history changes day by day, to my titillation . . .
I smile with a passion quenched with adoration,
it has now come before me -in a manner of which- holds a glimpse of what is mere fetal,
thus, a touch of agony,
and yet,
an abandon creativity that sets me free to infiltrate, ready to explode

the particles of which fall, with a gentle cascade, softly, slowly,
oh the beauty
feel the sensation, become a part of the Universal force
only to succeed another existence,

………………………………………………….

for some
*
Wendy Sutton 1995

Forgotten Australians, photos, poetry

Summer

by Janice Konstantinidis (guest author) on 12 April, 2011

At the age of twelve, Janice was taken by her grandparents and father to Mount Saint Canice, one of the Magdalene Laundries. The laundry was run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Hobart, Tasmania. Now Janice lives in California, USA, where she enjoys writing and tending her beautiful garden. Here she shares one of her recent poems.

Summer

Buttercup yellow is the sun in brightest blue,
Dandelions, in paddocks, not green,
but browning and turning back to that dark earthy hue
and thickening of sounds are
cicadas and swarming bees,
and chirruping nests in trees
and winging insects fluttering honey
from marigolds, petunia and alyssum.
These are summer sweetness to me
and I lie face up.
The sun warms
my blood from the winter cold
into that deep warmth which is not the fragile one of spring.
I feel summer absorb me
and I record the growth of shrub and tree

Janice’s garden
articles/lectures, documents, Forgotten Australians, Stolen Generations

Welfare refutes slander against Good Shepherd Home

by Oliver Cosgrove (guest author) on 12 April, 2011

How did abuse happen in institutions without anyone knowing at the time? In 1944, a Mrs Grundy in Perth knew. Her letters of complaint against child slave labour at the Convent of the Good Shepherd were published by the Catholic newspaper The Record, on Wednesday, 20 September 1944.  In the reply, the editor published the response of Welfare. Oliver Cosgrove kindly made available to the National Museum this excerpt from The Record, headlined Child Welfare Department Refute Malicious Slander Against Home of the Good Shepherd:

Mrs Grundy, Perth:

The next letter is from Mrs Grundy, Perth. She writes: Dear Sir – Will you please answer the following question?

Q: Why are such corrupt and diabolical institutions as the (so called) Convent of the Good Shepherd, where the inmates are mainly slaves, and where the industrial laws of the country are flouted, exempt from Government inspection?

A: In view of the startling and damaging nature of your revelations, your letter was shown to an official of the Child Welfare Department, so that the matter could be investigated and the abuse corrected if necessary. The following reply was received:

“All industrial homes, including the Home of the Good Shepherd Convent must be approved by the Governor through his representative, before they are allowed to function and all are subject to inspection by Government officials at any time. So far as the Home of the Good Shepherd is concerned, a full inspection covering buildings, living and working conditions, food and books of admission and discharges is made every three months by officers of the Child Welfare Department, who also interview the children and make individual reports upon them to the Secretary of the Department.

“The Child Welfare Department regulations require the institution to provide industrial training, such as needlework, washing, ironing, housework, cooking, gardening, and where cows are kept, dairying. This is necessary for the rehabilitation of the children. The same regulations control the hours of work.”

The next question from Mrs Grundy is this:

Q: The prisoners in our common gaols get a little remuneration for their labour, but in your Good Shepherd reformatory all they receive is plenty of hard work, hard living and blows. No wonder the poor unfortunate girl delinquents prefer the State prison to the sheltering care of your Convents.

A: Once again I quote the letter of the Child Welfare Department official;

“The committal of children to the Home of the Good Shepherd is not made as a punitive measure, but as a constructive one, and every effort is made to train their minds as well as their hands.

“Regular remuneration is not given because the Home is run for the comfort and care, not only of those who work under supervision, but also for those who for various reasons cannot work, some having to be nursed.

“State prisons are a Government responsibility, the overhead cost of running them being met by the taxpayers.

“As for girls preferring State prisons to the Home of the Good Shepherd, this may be said by an incorrigible girl out of bravado, but is far from the truth.

“The conditions of living at the Home of the Good Shepherd are such that many children, both ex-wards of the State and private girls, return there of their own free will, rather than remain in homes or in positions. Government regulations allow that corporal punishment may be administered for offences against morality, gross impertinence, or for persistent disobedience, but not for trivial breaches of discipline or dullness in learning. However, corporal punishment is not resorted to in the Home of the Good Shepherd.”

documents, Forgotten Australians, memories, objects, photography

The cross was a knife for us

by Rachael Romero (guest author) on 9 April, 2011

Award-winning film maker and visual artist, Rachael Romero, writes about the image of the knife that was used in a theatre production at the Pines (Convent of the Good Shepherd).

Rachael explains:

Imagery speaks to memory. Artifacts resonate meaning. In the Pines, (Convent of the Good Shepherd) year of 1968 we used this wooden knife in a play held as a charade for Welfare (as if we were provided for culturally). Never mind that there were hardly any books available; newspapers to read, radios to hear or any news crossing the barbed wire fences of our laundry prison.  We were told to offer up our suffering for the saving of souls. I see this knife as a kind of Magdalene  cross we were nailed to. After-all we were stigmatized and a regular cross would have been blasphemy. The knife was also the image of choice  for  home-made tattoo in the Pines;  crudely drawn into cuts on the  the leg in Indian ink–a form of self injury to reify the agony we felt .

I photographed the second image of my feet “on the cross” eighteen months after I got out. At sixteen–this is how I felt– crucified, but not redeemed from the extra judicial incarceration I had experienced. I had no-one to tell. Everyone looked away, pretended nothing had happened.We have only just begun to break this terrible silence in  “the lucky country” so that other unwanted children will cease to be so savaged.

The knife was used as a prop for the production of HMS Pinafore (image of the programme below), performed by inmates from the Pines. Rachael recalls:

It was directed by Mother Lourdes I believe. I made the drawing and did the scenery and sang in the chorus. I don’t remember much about it except that I was always glad to make art instead of working in the laundry.

The welfare workers, priest and family members were invited. It was all a big show to look as if we were being cared for.After the performance  the priest requested that my blonde curls be shaved and presented to him. I refused.

Forgotten Australians, memories, photos

Return to Mount Saint Canice

by Janice Konstantinidis (guest author) on 10 March, 2011

In January 2010, Janice Konstantinidis returned to her former “Home”, Mount Saint Canice, Sandy Bay, Tasmania to witness its redevelopment into luxury apartments.

Janice describes her feelings returning to Mount Saint Canice:

I am walking about the grounds….a first as a free person [and then] I sat here for a long time, trying to get my mind around it all. It was so weird to be free, even at fifty nine. In all seriousness I had flashbacks and wondered if I could be made stay.

 

 

documents, Forgotten Australians, memories, objects

Holy cards

by Rachael Romero (guest author) on 10 March, 2011

Rachael Romero who was sent to the The Pines, Plympton, SA, run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, recalls the importnace of holy cards:

Holy cards were currency -emotional currency–in a place where expressions of contempt are the norm; where you can’t trust anyone because of co-ersion and it is unwise to share secrets, the holy cards where a sanctioned (because purified) way of showing loyalty and caring between people–to say what otherwise may not be said–to give each other courage. We weren’t allowed to speak more than an hour a day–otherwise we were in silence and the thundering noise of the Laundry Mangle or being raved at by the head nun as we ate the rotten food. Allways watched, we could buy the cards for pennies from the nuns and sometimes we were given them as gifts. We could not pass notes or letters unless the nuns read them first but the holy card was ok. It carried our “voice” however coded, however muffled.

They were given on Feast Days and Birthdays because we had no other gifts. We got 20c every week towards buying our own shampoo, soap, tooth paste–and holy cards, from the nuns.

Holy Card, The Pines
Holy Card, The Pines
Holy Card, The Pines
Forgotten Australians, memories, poetry

What is Wild?

by Rachael Romero (guest author) on 2 March, 2011

In these two original poetic works, Rachael Romero reflects on her experiences at The Pines, an institution for girls in Plympton, South Australia.

What is wild?  by Rachael Romero, reflecting on entering The Pines

What is wild
Child
Not meek, not mild
Defiled
Exiled
Reviled
Child

MAGDALENE LAUNDRY

The stigmata of
religiously tattooed
Magdalene       slaves
scourgings of
“fallen women”,
scars from
inmate  labour
laundry work
hard physical
against the will work,
disfiguring injury
to hands and minds
now and always
Branded and
besmirched by
vituperative
nails-through-the-palms-
language
religious scourgings
marks of experience–pain
onto legs
bellies
Branded by injurious insult
religious tattooing of the mind
forced
physical labour
such as laundry work
agains- the-will,
side-by-side nail marks
Christ inflicted pain
Magdalene self-injury
cigarette burns to
know what  Jesus felt.

PENITENCE
the identifiable stigma of slaves
hard labour institutions,
stigmata people
ancient
branded.
on  my body
the same wounds
symbols of pain
and slavery
marks of ancient  inmate identification by  order of the church,      state order.

by Rachael Romero

Forgotten Australians, memories, photos

Life in “The Mag”

by Janice Konstantinidis (guest author) on 28 February, 2011

Janice Konstantinidis, shares a current photograph, as well as her detailed history of her time from the age of 12 working in the laundry of Mount Saint Canice, Tasmania, one of the Magdalena laundries, nicknamed “The Mag”. Janice also includes recollections of the lengths some girls would go to in order to escape.

Mount Saint Canice

At the age of twelve, I was taken by my grandparents and father to Mount Saint Canice, one of the Magdalene Laundries. The laundry was run by the Order of Good Shepherd Nuns in Hobart, Tasmania. There were a number of these laundries in Australia, as well as in other parts of the world. I am not sure how or why it came to pass that women and children were taken in by the nuns, but I know that the courts had no hesitation in sending adolescent girls to these homes for punishment. It was also common for parents to place their children in these homes when they could no longer house them, or for any number of reasons. It is not my purpose to speculate here as to why the state allowed this and, indeed, there has been an inquiry and subsequent public apology to all of us who were incarcerated in this manner. It is important for me to write my own record of my experiences so that it can become public knowledge. In doing so, I hope that no child now or in the future ever has to experience the horror I did.

I had been told that I was going to Mount Carmel, a Catholic boarding school in Hobart. My father had been asked to find a school for me as his parents, who were unwell, were no longer able to care for me. My father was a sadistic alcoholic, and he had lied to my grandmother about where I was going. In her mind, the nuns could do no wrong.

My first day at Mount Saint Canice began at six a.m. It was pitch black and cold. The lights were turned on, hurting my eyes, as a nun came through each dormitory calling out loudly “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. All of the inmates got out of bed and fell to their knees. I was to learn that this command was to be obeyed immediately upon penalty of losing a mark. I will talk about marks later.

I also got out of bed and dropped to my knees. We said the Lord’s Prayer in unison. I was then told by a girl next to me to make my bed, and to get washed and dressed. We lined up at the unlocked door and waited until all were assembled, before filing through the next dormitory and down two flights of stairs. As I type this, I look back and realize that there were no exit signs and no fire escapes in that particular area. Even so, the doors were locked at every turn. We would have been in serious danger had a fire ever broken out.

We walked silently through two more doors, our numbers growing as each group joined us. We eventually ended up in the convent church. We, the girls from the home, had a part for ourselves that had been sectioned off, although some of the older girls sat in the public area. The nuns had their section as well. We had to attend Mass each morning. I was Catholic, so this was not new to me; but many girls were not and, therefore, resented having to attend Mass. I have to say that I resented this as well, as I did not have a strong belief in God.

We were not allowed to speak at all. When Mass was over, we filed back in order, based on who had come from where. Once assembled, we made our way to the refectory for breakfast, which was usually oatmeal with milk, and toast with butter and jam. After breakfast, we filed out of the refectory. I was escorted to a huge room by Judith, who was an auxiliary nun, and told that it was the ironing room. There, I was introduced to Mother Marguerite, who was in charge of this area. I had never seen anything like it. There were ten large cloth-covered ironing tables that ran through the middle of the room. These were duplicated, so there were twenty places at which the girls would iron. There were huge steam pressers and steam egg-like implements used for pressing clothes. These ran along either side of the tables. There was also an area that led to the next room, and just nearby, there were many bins of wet clothes waiting to be ironed.

I was shown to a table near Mother Marguerite, who was ironing. She pulled a bin towards me and informed me that it was my job to iron handkerchiefs until the bell rang, and that I would then be collected for school as I was a school girl. Once again, I was told that there was to be no talking. I was shocked, to say the very least, at this turn of events. I had no idea what was going on, but I began to iron the handkerchiefs obediently. This and other laundry work would be my employment until I left Mount Saint Canice at age 15 and a half.

We were pretty much governed by bells. They would be rung late at night and first thing in the morning for the nuns, the first one being at 6 a.m. These bells became a way of life for me. They also corresponded with my need to perform rituals, so I was able to put a lot of my existing obsessive compulsive disorder into the various bells as they sounded. All nuns immediately stopped whatever they were doing at the sound of the bell; even if they had been in the process of dotting an “i”.

At nine a.m., I was called out by a girl in school uniform. She told me her name, and took me to the area of the convent in which the school-aged girls were given lessons. At that point, I was still of the belief that I would find myself at Mount Carmel. But this was not to be the case.

The school room and general area was divided into three rooms. We used one for the classroom, one for sewing, and the other for cooking. Our teacher was Mother Claver, a small but plump nun with a sharp tongue, whose bark was a bit worse than her bite. I was shown some navy skirts, white blouses, and navy sweaters to see which would fit me. I tried as hard as I could to find the right size, but nothing fitted me very well. I was given some white socks and told that I would get a pair of lace-up shoes when my size came in. I was then taken to the room where the cooking was done. Another nun, Mother Philip, was teaching cookery there, so I joined a girl at a table. I felt uncertain about all this as I knew that I was in the wrong color uniform for girls from Mount Carmel. They wore light brown tunics with sky blue blouses.

As I looked around me, I saw, in the distance, what I thought was a long, blue swimming pool. I asked the girl next to me if we were going to swim in it at some point. She looked at me peculiarly, and asked me to repeat myself. The class was silent and everyone was looking at me. I think there were about 15 of us who were of school age. When I repeated myself, I was told, amidst roars of laughter, that that was no pool, and to go and have a proper look. I walked over to the windows, which were huge and took up one entire side of the building. One girl said to me, “Can you see now?” I could see that what I had thought was a pool was actually blue corrugated iron. She asked me if I could see the rolls of barbed wire on top, and I told her that I could. I could also see that the windows through which I was looking were barred; ornate, but barred nonetheless. Someone asked me where the f****** I thought I was. I told her that I was at the Mount Carmel Boarding school for Catholic girls. Huge peals of laughter followed. I was then informed that I was in the “Mag”. I asked what that was, and was told that it was the Magdalene Girls’ Reformatory – otherwise known as Mount Saint Canice. I then asked why there were bars on the window, and was told they were there to prevent us from jumping out, and that the fence was there to ensure that we would not run away. I could not absorb what they were saying, and I suddenly began to feel unwell; I was having an anxiety attack. Mother Phillip guided me into the next room to sit down. I thought that my heart would break. I felt very betrayed and humiliated, and I began to cry. I told Mother Phillip that there had been a mistake made, and that I had been sent to the wrong school. She told me that I had been placed with them by my family, and that I had to stay. I asked her when I could go home, but she told me that it would be some time before I would be allowed to leave. It turned out that it would be eight months before I was allowed a break for Christmas. I can’t describe the turmoil engulfing my mind at that point. The reality was simply too sad for me to contemplate.

My memories of my early days at Mount Saint Canice are not consistently vivid, although I am not sure why. I recall that the first night was exceedingly frightening for me. Due to my extreme anxiety, my face was going numb quite a lot. I had been given a seat at a table with three other people in the refectory – which, by the way, was a new word for me. There were about 200 girls inside. The first thing that I noticed was that they were not all young, and I was puzzled by this. The refectory was divided into three areas, one of which had women who were quite old. It turned out that some of these were the women who ran the convent farm; some were intellectually challenged; and some had been in the convent for most of their lives. I would learn all about this later.

I felt quite uncomfortable as I sat in the dining room. I felt as though everyone was looking at me, and I suppose they were. After all, I was the new girl. I was seated at a table with Judith, the auxiliary nun mentoned abive. These women wore grey habits with grey stockings and black lace-up shoes. They also wore veils with a light blue strip of fabric around the head area, although it was not a full-faced coif like those worn by the other nuns. They also wore light blue and grey belts, and had large silver crucifixes hanging from their necks. These nuns took yearly vows and were usually the product of a lifetime in the institution. While not considered for ‘proper’ orders, they were nonetheless nuns as they saw it; and some, like Judith, were in charge of a group of girls.

Mealtime was unusual. In the afternoon, we had bread with butter and jam, along with cups of tea. Sitting at my table was a young woman who was about 18 to 20 years old. She was profoundly intellectually challenged, and she carried her teddy bear with her at all times. Judith cared for her; in fact, she was like her child. Her name was Kerrie Anne. She could not speak, and was very myopic. I was frightened of her at first because Judith told me that she bit people if she was annoyed.

There was no speaking allowed while eating. I later learned that one could speak if it was the feast day of a saint. Whenever she came into room, the nun on refectory duty would say “God be blessed”, and the room would buzz with chatter. When we finished eating, we washed our cutlery in colored plastic bowls which were bought to the table by the girls whose turn it was to do so. The bowls were filled with hot, soapy water from a large jug, which was also brought to the table. We reset the places, wiped our placemats with a cloth, and dried the cutlery with a tea towel. Our plates were taken away when we were finished. We all took turns at these jobs.

After tea that first afternoon, I went to what was known as a group room. I was allocated to a group called the Rosarians. There were about thirty girls to a group, and we had four groups. The nun in charge of my group was Mother Magdalene. The group room was used for recreation, and had chairs and tables for crafts and puzzles. We also had a TV and various other bits and pieces. We took turns to clean the group room.

On my first night in the dormitory, I recall being very frightened. I had been allocated a bed in a huge room which was shared by about 40 girls. All the women at the home were referred to as girls, regardless of age. I was not able to sleep in the two rooms that the other group members used as they were short of a bed for me; so I slept in the dormitory used by some of the older girls and auxiliary nuns. My bed was in the centre of the room in the middle of a line of beds. I recall the main lights going out as it was my turn to shower. It would have been nine o’clock. My shyness about going to the shower made me late. I was also extremely nervous and I dropped my new shampoo and watched helplessly as it spilled all over the tiles. The bottle, which had the name Blue Clinic on it, was made of glass. I was so upset that I had spilled it. Thankfully someone came to help me to clean it up. I also recall going to bed with wet hair that night. I could still see the moon through the windows. I noticed that these windows were also barred, but I tried not to pay too much attention to this. I cried that night; it was all very, very strange to me. I was also particularly upset because I could not perform my rituals in case I was seen, so I had to do them in my mind. I had developed OCD when I was nine years old and I hade developed a need to perform many rituals as a result of this. My time in Mount Saint Canice made all this considerably worse, as I was constantly anxious.

The curriculum at the school at Mount Saint Canice could have been worse. It covered basic arithmetic, spelling, and the usual subjects up to about grade four level. I recall being annoyed that we had to learn about Burke and Wills. I tended to do my work and say very little. After some weeks, Mother Claver asked me to help some other girls, and I did this throughout the rest of the school year. I was very sad about this, as I knew that I was not learning and the thing that had been so very important to me since I began school, was to absorb myself in my school work. Most of the girls found their schoolwork to be very hard. There was one other girl of my age who was unable to manage her schoolwork. I will refer to her as Lucy, although this is not her real name. Lucy and I became friends and have remained in contact to this day. She had been placed in the home because her parents were heavy drinkers and her mother had thrown her into a fire.

I kept hoping that I would be able to go home to tell my grandmother about all that I was experiencing. My watch had been stolen in the first week, as had my underwear. The latter were, however, replaced by Mother Anselm from the reserves that she had. These clothes were new, but were very old-fashioned; they were made of pink cotton, and the bras were unlike any I had ever seen. I later discovered that they had originally been purchased for the nuns. Long pink petticoats and white ankle socks were the norm. Lucy had come to the home as an emergency placement and had no clothes on arrival, so the pink clothing was not new to her.

During my first week at Mount Saint Canice, my neck was burned. All girls had to be deloused and checked for fleas. I was aghast at the very notion, but had no choice but to go along with it. On my second day, I was given a bottle of vile-smelling liquid by Judith, and told to shower with it. I think this was usually done on the first day, but I had arrived late the previous day. Judith also delegated an older girl to wash my hair with kerosene, and this is what burned my neck. There was also no treatment for this.

We all had to take a glass of Epsom salts once a week. This was to ‘clean us out’ and, in fact, usually gave us diarrhea. We all hated drinking it, but we would lose a mark if we refused. There was also no sense trying to write home about our circumstances, as all our mail was read. This applied to both incoming and outgoing mail. Some girls had to rewrite their letters, while others found pieces cut out of the mail that they received from home and friends. We were allowed to read and write letters on Saturday afternoons in our group rooms, and all letters had to be shown to the group nun.

School ended with a bell at 3 p.m. We filed out in line to the refectory. After having our afternoon tea, we went back to work in our respective places in the laundry until 5 p.m. when we finished work. We were allowed back into the dormitory to have a quick wash before having dinner at 5.30 p.m. As usual, there was no talking, except when we were given permission to do so. The meals, while fattening, were generously proportioned and always warm. I have to give credit here; no one went hungry.

There was even a convent cat to feed. My grandfather had been in the habit of drowning my cats whenever they had kittens. I would come home to find my cat gone and sometimes only one kitten left. I grew to like the convent cat. It belonged to Mother Phillip and I used to amuse Lucy by writing poems about it.

The laundry was huge. There was the ironing room where I worked when I was not in school, the machine room where Lucy worked, the folding and packing room, and the drying rooms. The machine room was very large and contained two enormous mangles and rows of large washing machines. These machines were operated by one man who had been employed by the convent for years. He was unfortunate enough to have his daughter come to the home a year or so later. He was not allowed to speak to her, but they would look at each other from a distance.

The laundry provided services to hospitals and many other institutions. It also offered private laundry services, mainly to the priests, as well as to the archbishop’s residence. To my knowledge, it was the biggest commercial laundry in southern Tasmania. The mangles, which pressed all flat items, were so large that it took two girls to feed a wet sheet into one, and two on the other side to remove and fold it. The heat was so intense that a wet sheet would only need to be fed through once. The work that we did in the ironing room was different, and consisted of tending to smaller items such as underwear, shirts, and hankies. There were dozens of shirts and hundreds of hankies per day. This work was done every weekday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and girls who were aged over 14 worked on Saturday mornings as well.

I was allocated a place in a new dormitory in time for my 13th birthday. I recall being glad that I could finally see out of a window. Our dormitory was three storeys high, and although my window had bars, I could see the moon and some of lower Sandy Bay, and for this I was immensely grateful. There were nine beds in the room, which was one of the smaller dormitories, and Judith and Kerrie Anne were my roommates. I had a bed, a single locker, a chair, and a mat. Our beds had to be made to army standards, and we had to keep our area clean and tidy. There was an inspection every Saturday afternoon, after which we were given our marks.

Sometimes the girls would try to escape. In fact, on occasion they were successful. But they were invariably caught by the police and brought back to the home. Their hair would be cut roughly within an inch of their scalps, and their fingernails would undergo similarly harsh treatment. “Punishment frocks”, which were dresses made from hessian with bias binding trim, would also be worn for some months. The girls could wear a skivvy under them, but all of their own clothes, with the exception of socks and underwear, were confiscated. These punishment frocks had to be worn to “parlor,” much to the humiliation of the girls. Parlor was the room in which the girls saw their family on the second and fourth Sunday of the month. Some girls who were nearing the end of their sentence would be allowed home for a weekend. This was an extremely special event. In all my time at Mount Saint Canice, I never went to parlor. I had no visitors, with the exception of one visit from relatives from the country who had heard that I was at the home.

There is one particular incident that I will never forget. A group of three girls was planning to escape one Sunday night while the rest of the girls were watching a film. I was in my dormitory helping to bathe Kerrie Anne when they attempted to escape. I had gone to the window to see if I could see them jump. They had planned to jump from the third floor bathroom window – this was one of the few windows that had no bars – to a ledge, to another ledge, and then to the roof of the first floor, which was concrete and had been added on to the home in its later years. The first girl jumped, but lost her footing when attempting to land on the ledge. She kept falling until she landed on the concrete roof. I heard her fall and saw that she lay still. The alarm was sounded by someone and the flood lights came on. An ambulance and the police were called. We soon learnt that the girl had broken her back. We never saw her again. We were told that after being discharged from the hospital, she was sent to Lachlan Park, which was a mental institution. We were all very upset by this. I felt awful because I had known that they were intending to escape, and I repeatedly wondered if perhaps I should have informed one of the nuns. Then again, to do so would have led to a physical thrashing for me and I was afraid of the bullying that took place in the home.

The other girls who wanted to escape from the home would cut themselves or take some other action that would require admission to hospital, as this was seen as preferable to being at the home. One girl who had escaped, been recaptured, and whose hair had been cut off as a result, was working with me in the ironing room one day. Mother Marguerite had gone out for a few minutes. The girl was working on a press for shirts, and I saw her lay her hands on the press as one would do to flatten out a shirt. I then noticed with horror that she let the press down on her hands. I ran to her, thinking that it must have been a terrible accident, and I stepped on the release foot pedal. But this was a mistake as her hands were stuck to the top lid of the press. She screamed, I screamed, and an older girl raced to help us. The burned girl was taken to the hospital and did not return until sometime later. Despite the trauma that I experienced, I was expected to carry on with my work, and to eat my afternoon tea as if nothing had happened. I had nightmares for a long time about the girl who had jumped, and the girl who had burned herself.

I was terrified of the times that I spent as a carer for three girls who had epilepsy. I was terrified of seizures, but was given the job of watching these girls – some of whom were over 21 years old – at night. We slept in a room with nothing but mattresses so that, in the event of a seizure, no one could do themselves any harm. When a girl had a seizure, I had to run from the room – I was given trustee privileges for this – and I had to pull hard on the rope that rang the bell. Mother Marguerite was the convent nurse and, after a time, she would appear with an injection for the girl or girls, as sometimes another girl would have a seizure as well. I was so horrified that I could hardly speak. I would even have anxiety attacks of which they were completely unaware. To say that I lived my life in constant anxiety and fear while in the convent would be an understatement.

There were times of incredible sadness for some of the girls. Sometimes a girl would come to the home pregnant, or another might escape and become pregnant. Although she would try to hide her condition for as long as possible, she was eventually sent to Elim House in West Hobart, which was a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers. The girls eventually came back to us after they had delivered their babies. Some of them were over 18, but remained wards of the state until they were 21 years old. They, therefore, had no say in what happened to them or their babies. To see their sorrow at having lost their children was heartbreaking. To see them punished for what, in hindsight, seems to have been depression was also devastating. Worst of all was the news that one girl had hanged herself, which was such a shock to me that I felt unable to breathe for some time. She had been a lovely person. She had come to the home in the very early stages of pregnancy and had been sent to Elim. She’d come back to tell us that she’d had a baby boy.

On Saturday mornings, we were allowed to sleep in until 7 a.m. We went to a later Mass, had our breakfast, and came back to the dormitories to clean them. We would even wash and polish the floors on our knees. Everything in the convent was always spotless, and we took turns cleaning the bathrooms, which were then inspected.

We were expected to shower every night and again in the morning if we wanted to. Due to my constant efforts to get the kerosene out of my hair, I began to wash it every day, and I have continued this practice to this day.

We worked in our dormitories until lunch time. After lunch, we went to our group room and we were allowed to talk or play a game until Mother Magdalene came, at which point we had other activities to do. Every second Saturday, Mother Anselm would come to the groups as well. She would be told about us and would give us marks and pocket money according to how many marks we had received. I believe that these marks were a way of maintaining some degree of control over the girls. Three marks were to be given to each girl; one for work/school, one for our general care of ourselves and cleanliness, and the other for our general behavior. If we were ‘good’ in all three areas, we received four shillings. If we lost a mark, it would be three shillings. The loss of two marks meant that we got only two shillings, and the loss of all three marks meant that we received no pocket money and no special privileges such as being allowed to go to the movies, which were shown on Sunday nights.

Other forms of punishment took the form of the extra cleaning of the dormitory floors. Used tea leaves were thrown over the floors, which we would then have to sweep and polish. There was a large, red cement hallway that ran through various areas of the home. Scrubbing this hallway while on my hands and knees was a job that I came to know well. It would take me over two hours, and I was expected to use a toothbrush for the grouted areas. I would be given this punishment for simply asking “why?”, or for taking too long in the toilets. They did not consider the fact that I suffered from constipation and that hurrying was, therefore, impossible for me. Furthermore, the red corridor was cold and draughty most of the time.

We always referred to ourselves as slaves, and, looking back, I can see that we were. All the girls who could work, worked long and hard hours, and the sum of four shillings was an insult to them. I had never had any money and was often away in my fantasy world; so it did not occur to me to be less than grateful for anything that came my way that was not going to hurt me. It is hard for me to look back and adequately explain this, but it is how I felt. We were expected to use this money to buy our own toiletries and other items for our personal use. Some girls had parents who provided for them, while others did not. In any case, the nuns took everything that came into the convent and dispensed it as they thought appropriate. Only sanitary pads were provided and we had to ask Mother Marguerite for these. They were known as a packet of “Bunnies” and we were only allowed one packet per menstrual cycle. My periods were heavy and I suffered chapping due to changing napkins infrequently.

We would go up to the dormitories at 7:30 p.m. each week night and lights were out at 9 p.m. I was always excited to get into my bed. I had the most wonderful fantasy life that anyone could imagine and I could not wait to get lost in it. My fantasies were many and varied, but a common theme involved having a large family.

The population of the home consisted of many different girls. There were older girls — women — who no longer worked in the laundry; they would sit outside in one particular corridor where there was sun, in their own group rooms, or perhaps in bed. Some of these girls had not been outside of the home for many years. I knew one older woman who told me she had not been outside for over twenty years. There was another woman in her late thirties whose job it was to care for these girls. As far as I know, this woman had come to the home in her youth, and had never left. Every so often, one of the older women would die, and we were allowed to visit her bed if we wanted to. This was so we could say goodbye to her before she died. I was also terrified of this.

Other girls were younger and suffered from various forms of developmental delay. These girls would often work on the convent farm, which was huge and very productive. They were often overweight, and smelled of cow manure, as I recall. They did not suffer any nonsense from the younger girls. They would clip our ears as we walked past, or hit out at us. Some of these girls had been in the home for as long as they could recall. There was a family of three girls who lived in the home with their mother. I am not sure how this came to be. Then there were the girls who were sent to the home for various so-called crimes — the fallen, the wretched, and the shamed. I have to say that I can’t recall any bad girls at the home. Rather, as I see it, their behavior was the product of being institutionalized. Of course, I did not know any of this then, and I saw myself as bad, and without worth or entitlement.

I have never really recovered from my years of living in Mount Saint Canice. I lived in fear of being locked up again, and maybe, at some levels, I still do. After leaving the home, I went on to make some extremely poor life choices. I was unhappy for most of my life, suffering from profound depression and anxiety. It was not until I was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in therapy in my late fifties that I began to think and feel like I could actually control my own life. To this day, I believe that someone should be accountable for the tragic occurrences that I witnessed and underwent at that time. When I recall these incidents, I do not believe that any apology given by the government is of any value at for me.

I enjoy a good quality of life now, but I know many women who suffered the same fate in these homes. These women have not been able to lead happy or productive lives. I can only hope that my story will serve to remind people what can happen when children are not cared for or shown the respect and love that they need.

Janice Konstantinidis (nee Exter)

February, 2011

Janice today at Yosemite National Park, USA, with her dog Ben
art, Forgotten Australians, memories, painting, Stolen Generations

Escape and Blood Sisters

by Rachael Romero (guest author) on 16 February, 2011

Rachael Romero shares two of her paintings which depict experiences at the Convent of the Good Shepherd, ‘The Pines’, Plympton, South Australia.

Frederica’s Escape Attempt
mixed media on rag paper (ink, watercolour) 22 x 30″, copy right Rachael Romero, 1984

Freddie tried to rush up the wall over the barbed wire one night. The dogs were barking on the other side. We were all wishing her up and over and out, but of course she got dragged back.

She would keep trying.

Blood Sisters
mixed media on rag paper (ink, watercolor) 22 x 30″, copyright Rachael Romero, 1984

Me and Lilly did this because we felt we had become sisters in horror. Lilly had been taken from her mother to a mission then The Pines. She didn’t remember where she was from. I didn’t want to be from where I remembered.