When I was in Melbourne last week one of my daughters suggested we have lunch at the Abbotsford Convent –a complex of buildings that had once been a Roman Catholic convent and now houses cafes, community art venues, artist studios and alternative healing spaces. I’d never been there before but was curious to see how a place that had been one of the infamous Magdalen Laundries could be converted into a place for contemporary art and alternative healing.
The Magdalen Laundries were run by the Roman Catholic nuns in many countries including Ireland, Australia, Africa, India and North America. Girls who didn’t fit in society for one reason or another were sent there to work in commercial laundries which funded Catholic missions elsewhere. The girls worked long hours in slave like conditions. Many lived there for most of their lives receiving no pay and no education. Some came from orphanages or were sent by the courts, others were unmarried pregnant girls cast out by their families. Their babies were taken from them after birth and put up for adoption.
The Laundries at Abbotsford Convent closed in the 1975 when the nuns sold the site to the State Government. Various tenants used parts of the site while other areas were left to become derelict. In 1997 a major development company won the tender to convert the site into modern apartments. The community of the inner Melbourne suburb of Abbotsford banded together to fight the proposal. In 2004 they won the battle and were gifted the site by the Victorian Government. The Abbotsford Convent Foundation then became the custodians of the site to own and restore on behalf of the people, with a focus on arts, culture and learning. 40% of the site still remains in a derelict condition.
After we’d had our lunch my daughter wanted to find a private place where she could breast feed her baby. Her little three year old was restless and wanted to go exploring so we set off to see what we could find. It was a dreary cold day and rain threatened. Leaving the crowded cafe we searched around looking for a place to sit down out the weather. At first we walked through a maze of buildings that looked decidedly creepy.
I was a single mum myself not all that many years after the Laundries closed. While I didn’t suffer anywhere near the horrors the girls here had endured I could empathise with them. My heart felt heavy with the grief they would have felt when their children were taken. I trailed after my daughter lost in bad memories of the prejudice I faced during my son’s early years. Back then society wasn’t as tolerant as it is today. I can remember people stopping me in the street of my home town to tell me I should be ashamed of myself. Once when I was looking for a place to rent an estate agent told me he didn’t rent to single mums because they had wild parties and wrecked houses.
judgements of others
bringing on feelings of shame
– no room at the inn
Just when I thought I could bear no more the Abbotsford Convent and it’s grim history we turned a corner and entered the area when the alternative healers had their rooms.
I stopped to take a photo of these flowers for they were the first cheerful thing I’d seen a while. As I did so a woman walked past talking loudly into a mobile phone. ‘Because I experienced so much trauma I am able to bring in vast quantities of white light,’ she said. Thinking about what she could have meant, I hurried after my daughter.
We walked through a cloister then down a long corridor where an unusual community art exhibition hung.
At the end of the corridor we found a reception room where comfy lounges were placed around a coffee table covered with art books. I sat and read the lush publications while my daughter fed her baby. Various people walked past and smiled at us but no one suggested we shouldn’t be there. Once the baby was fed we continued on. By this stage we were so totally lost in the maze in the maze of buildings and overwhelmed by the strangeness of our day out it came as no surprise to find ourselves in the old Bishops chapel.