Melbourne Gothic

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. 

                                              2015-05-12 13.30.33

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.

 2015-05-12 13.27.49-1 2015-05-12 13.34.15I2015-05-12 13.32.13 2015-05-12 13.32.47

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.  

2015-05-12 13.51.05   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.

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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.  

We left the convent by through old main entrance.      2015-05-12 14.00.23-01 



prompts:  Carpe Diem Haiku Kai,  Haiku Horizons  – shame, Dungeon prompts – what takes me to church,


54 thoughts on “Melbourne Gothic

  1. A very moving post Suzanne as you journeyed through a number of realities. I’m glad there was beauty and healing at the end. I had a similar feeling of horror and empathy when I visited the site of the Hay girls home. Our sunny history, indeed.

    (Did you withdraw “An abstract kind off day”? The link won’t let me there. I enjoyed the escape from Auntie May.)

    1. oh – you caught me out. I did take down that post. I was asked to do a 5 day challenge and started off thinking I could do it. After doing the first post I felt a bit overwhelmed with all the commitments I have at present so I decided not to go ahead with it. The best thing to do seemed to be to withdraw the post. There wasn’t anymore to the Auntie May story anyway. Sorry for the inconvenience and annoyance I may have caused. I have to learn to only commit to what I can actually complete.
      Back to this post, there certainly is a dark side to Australia. I think talking about is part of the healing.

      1. I only asked because I’ve been having a few problems with blogs, and I wanted to make sure the disappearance was kosher. I’ve also decided not to take part in 5 days, 5 stories, (although I’ll steal the idea for later) despite invitations I felt very flattered by. No inconvenience and annoyance at all, although I’m glad I saw it when it was there.

        1. Thanks Meg. It is hard to work out just what blogging is all about right now. All these challenges can get exhausting yet they are enticing too. I am currently sorting out my blog archives and trying to figure out what to do with all these beginnings of ideas that get lost in the constant roll forward. All these ideas and thoughts may well find their way into a blog piece later today.

  2. Thanks for sharing your poignant story. Beautiful Haiku. It is so good that things are changing. Left with two small kids and moving to a small town in 1991 I was lucky the landlords thought single mothers made good renters. I was also so lucky to be accepted at a methodist church with loving arms. In the previous city the people at the catholic church never spoke to me. Your story touches a nerve, not just for single mothers losing their babies, but for how we institutionalized mentally handicapped people as well, not so long ago. Lovely haiga!

    1. Yes, it was hard to write. It touched a raw nerve with me too. I’m glad your story had a happy outcome. It’s awful to think of such prejudice as late as 1991. You make a good point about the institutionalization of the disabled too. That’s another issue close to my heart.
      I’m so glad you liked the haiga here.

  3. People are so quick to judge others and find them wanting. Especially women are judged. I hate feeling someone has judged me and made conclusions that have nothing to do with who I am. But to have lived in that time, and had the bad luck of being too fertile too young, those places enslaved and mistreated their inmates, is what I’ve read. They weren’t homes. They were workhouses.

    1. Yes absolutely. The conditions were appalling. Thank goodness many countries respect women more now. I feel for women who live in countries that don’t.

    1. Thanks so much Janice. I’m really glad you commented on the final haiga – It’s great to know someone else thinks like I do.

  4. I’d seen some fictional story either a movie or TV show about those place but in Ireland. The Catholic Church has a dark history. Women catch it coming and going – you’re condemned if you have an abortion, looked down on if you’re a single mom, and unprotected if you refuse and are attacked. But, we were once queens and goddesses and all things come around again.

  5. What an interesting post Suzanne .. I really enjoyed it very much and the photos are fantastic .. envy you this beautiful convent … though not the strange lady on the telephone! 🙂

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed this entire piece, from start to finish. It contains so much depth and feeling; I’m glad I didn’t miss it!

  7. That excerpt of the phone call certainly was bizarre and really fit in to this piece of tragic history, as well as the contrast with the history and your daughter and baby. As always delightful writing style and of course very interesting. The forced enslavery of young women into nunhood is one of the scandals of history globally. I know of a similar place in Ireland to this one described here, and it was appalling, and having read that throughout history in many European countries one daughter from most families was sent to a convent it really makes me really question much of the European heritage, in comparison with others habitually looked down on.

    1. Yes, the phone call was particularly odd. All in all it was a very strange day.
      I think the Magdalen Laundries of Ireland were even more gruesome than the ones in Melbourne – and they went for much longer. I think the last of them closed in the 1990s!
      Enforced religion is a strange concept. Placing one child from the family in a nunnery or monastery (or the equivalent) happens in religions other than Christianity too. A touchy subject for many I think.

  8. I loved this post not only for the interesting photos and historical memories , but also , and above all ,for your personal experience you were so lovely to share with us!
    There are no words to define the kind of institutions and the behavior of people you mention….
    Shame on them!

    1. You are right. This a shameful tale. I debated whether or not to blog about it but knew I wouldn’t be able to fully move from it until I did.

  9. Have you watched Philomena with Judi Dench? It was on this topic too. Heartbreaking — and it made me furious to watch it.

    Thank you for sharing this post.

    1. No, I haven’t seen that movie. I came across references to it when I researching the facts about the Laundries. I’ll try and watch it sometime but I’m a bit scared to get too deep into this stuff. It touches a nerve. Thanks for your comment on my sharing this story. It was hard to write but it felt incredibly important to do so.

  10. I love your post, Suzanne. What an eerie feeling it must have been to walk to parts of this convent. There was a movie out on that place in Irene…those poor girls punished for the sin of love and lust and men went on in life no fingerpointing on them. My mom raised us alone most of our life. When she finally separted for good, I had self-righteous mothers who would not let their girls hang out with me. My daughter had her son in 2004 and she was judged at the hospital by the social worker as well…I poked my head in her room when she was questioned and said I was a counsellor for a parent help line…which was true at the time and she got off her case. Single mums are still misjudged and what bugs me is that it is often professionals and people of faith. I had better stop talking here as I could get on a rant…haha. I love your photos and that photo of the flowers by the!! it looks like a painting.

    1. Gosh – 2004 and still be persecuted! How terrible. What is wrong people? Actually I think all this moral judging is a way of keeping people under control. I read once that marriage was just a thing upper class people did in Britain in late 1700s. Other people lived together under common law agreements – and did not feel compelled to stay if the love had gone. It was in the 1700s that marriage become something the upper classes imposed on everyone else. When the first convicts came to Australia they were more likely to get a pardon if they married one of the other convicts. Once married they got all kind of perks – even land (which meant they lived close to the authorities who kept a very keen eye on them).
      Get on rant any time you want about this. I’m happy to read it. And thanks for your kind words on my photos.

      1. Well that makes sense; like the confession was added as a sacrament Catholics had to go to regularly not to just ease the soul but so the church would know what was going on in the parish.

  11. Things have improved but women are still very much discriminated against in so many areas of life. Great pics… and interesting story and nice haiku….will read again when I have more time. Enjoyed this very much.
    I have seen the movies’ Magdalene Sisters’ and ‘Philomena’ but am intelligent enough not to demonise the largest religion on the planet because of its rotten apple barrels which statistically only make up a small proportion.We never hear about the enormous good and charity that the Catholic Church does globally.

    1. Well that’s true enough – there are some very good Catholics around but also some that are not so good. Just like any religion really. The prejudice still around the issue of single mothers is not just a Catholic thing. Still I’m glad you found my post interesting,

  12. Thanks for the tour and the history lesson. I had no idea about the laundries. Very interesting. Your haiku was moving. I could feel your pain. Thanks for sharing with Dungeon Prompts.

    1. Thanks for welcoming me to your site. It looks very interesting and I am following it. I’m glad you found my post interesting.

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