‘Dickensian’ Good Shepherd Institutions Covered Up Dysfunction In Canadian Society, As Late As The 1960s

Operated in reality as a form of incarceration, they sentenced women and girls as young as 12 or 13 to back-breaking, indefinite labour

A Magdalene Laundry in England in the early Twentieth Century, from Frances Finnegan, Do Penance or Perish, Congrave Press, 2001. PHOTO BY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Thousands of academics gathered in Vancouver for the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences from June 1-7. They presented papers on everything from child marriage in Canada to why dodgeball is problematic. In its Oh, The Humanities! series, the National Post showcases some of the most interesting research.

If you saw the Oscar-nominated 2013 movie Philomena, you’ve heard of the Magdalene laundries — Catholic institutions that persisted in Ireland until, incredibly, 1996. They supposedly provided asylum to “fallen” women, such as former prostitutes and unwed mothers.

In reality, these institutions were understood, and operated, as a form of incarceration. They sentenced women and girls as young as 12 or 13 to back-breaking labour, living out their days boiling and stirring and rinsing and wringing and hanging laundry for the wealthy, respectable members of society

Until recently, the laundries were thought of as “an Irish phenomenon,” but they also existed in the U.K, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and, yes, Canada, says Rie Croll, associate professor of social cultural studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland and author of the new book Shaped by Silence: Stories from Inmates of the Good Shepherd Laundries and Reformatories.

The Sisters of the Good Shepherd ran more than a dozen institutions for girls and women across the country, from the Maritimes to Ottawa to Vancouver. They proliferated in the 19th century and were variously called homes, training schools, asylums, refuges, reformatories and laundries, Croll said. Of the Canadian institutions she examined, the last to close was the St. Mary’s Training School in Toronto, in 1973.

Croll presented two talks based on her research at the annual conference of the Canadian Sociological Association, part of the larger Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Vancouver.

She interviewed survivors who entered institutions between the 1930s and 1960s, not long before they closed for good. Their accounts provide some of the most detailed information we have about Good Shepherd homes in Canada, which, despite being relatively recent, are now nearly forgotten. No one knows how many Canadian women were incarcerated in them or how many survive, though it’s “more than single digits,” Croll said. Few records were kept and the survivors and their families were shamed into silence. In fact, it took years for Croll to gain enough trust to sit down with survivors and hear their tales. She spoke to inmates from Canada, Australia and Ireland.

Almost to a body, the women described them as Dickensian

What she heard beggars belief. The institutions were so draconian that it seems impossible they existed within living memory, during the same period as the flappers were tearing up dance halls, as Civil Rights activists were marching, as The Beatles were scoring hits.

Their stated purposes varied and their practices were different across regions and over time. The Good Shepherd sisters had a set way of doing things that was quite uniform, Croll explained, and “almost to a body, the women described them as Dickensian.”

The day began before dawn. The nuns clapped their hands and the women jumped out of bed and dropped to their knees for prayers. They pulled their heavy, long cotton dresses and aprons over their nightgowns: It was forbidden to show their bodies even to other inmates. After a quick wash, they filed in silence into chapel for mass, in silence into the dining hall for a starchy, flavourless meal, and in silence into the heat of the workroom to do laundry, or sometimes other menial chores, all day. Depending on the institution, they may have had a few hours of basic schooling each day. For an hour before bed, they had a break. Often this time was used to make rosaries for sale.

“Everything was taken away that was a reminder of a possession of identity,” Croll said. Their street clothes were confiscated, their hair and nails chopped short and, in the laundries, they were given new names and forbidden to use their own.

This made it hard for survivors to find each other and organize in the years since — though the shame did that much more effectively.

The institutions were based on the idea of contagious “moral pollution,” Croll explained. Their purpose was not only to segregate the women and give them asylum from a cruel, judgmental society, but to keep society safe from their corrupting influence.

“They’re told that they are bad, they’re shameful, they’re sluts, that they have done something really wrong. The state has imprisoned them, and the Church has imprisoned them, and their families have abandoned them. The language that’s used to describe them is shameful — you need to clean, you need to clean, you need to clean, you need to be penitent. You are not worthy of your old name. You may not mention your former life. This is a stripping away, through ideology and words, that creates a stigma that becomes internalized and believed — believed as fact,” she said.

In one of her talks, Croll argued this breaking of the human spirit was a form of “symbolic violence,” a sociological concept articulated by the French theorist Pierre Bourdieu. “It broke their resistance to other more immediate and explicit forms of violence in their lives,” she said.

The state was working with the church and families were, too

Canadian women and girls were committed to Good Shepherd institutions for a huge variety of reasons. Their sentences could be indefinite or extended at will. Some had been involved in sex work or gotten pregnant out of wedlock, but others were simply considered “defiant,” “incorrigible,” or “wayward” because they’d been caught “lipping off to their parents, smoking cigarettes, stuff that in those days that would have been shocking,” Croll said.

None of the survivors she interviewed had done anything that would be considered a crime today. One was declared “unmanageable” and sentenced to a Toronto reformatory in 1961 for sneaking away from her abusive parents to spend the evenings with friends. Another was born into a Good Shepherd laundry in Saint John, N.B. in 1934 to a 13-year-old Indigenous girl who got pregnant after a gang rape. The two remained incarcerated together, working side-by-side from the time the girl was eight until she escaped over the fence at the age of 18.

These institutions were supposed to respond to some of the worst violence and dysfunction in society, but they ended up covering it up, Croll said, adding that adolescent girls who had been victims of incest often ended up in them. So it’s not surprising that there has been no big movement from surviving family members to get recognition and restitution for what happened.

“The state was working with the Church, and families were too,” she said.

Croll’s other academic talk was on the concept of the moral double standard. There’s the obvious, gendered double standard, in that women were committed to these institutions while men were not. Women were seen as “solely responsible for any sexual transgression that’s happening in society.”

Then there’s another layer of double standard: The gulf between the stated purpose of the institutions and their real effects.

“The very system of incarceration that was supposed to reform them, became a significant factor in shaping their lifelong inequality,” Croll said. “Those who the Church and state targeted for saving were simultaneously treated as bad, dirty and unsalvageable.”

The sisters, obviously, saw their work quite differently. Their motto then and now is, “One person is of more value than the whole world.”

The National Post’s attempts to contact the order for comment by phone, email and letter have so far been unsuccessful.

A call to the Good Shepherd office in St. Louis, Mo., was not returned by press time and a visit to the sisters’ listed address in Etobicoke, Ont. yielded nothing. A staff member at nearby St. Gregory’s church, though, remembered a nun called Sister Doris who loved to tell stories about her days working at St. Mary’s, a Good Shepherd reform school in Toronto.

Sister Doris died in 2018.

Croll argues the institutionalization of women created a lifelong loss of self-confidence and difficulty reintegrating into society. She spoke to an Irish politician who remembers the day in 1996 when the last Magdalene laundry was closed in Dublin.

“Those poor women. They staggered on to the street. He said they didn’t even know how to cross a busy, modern street. They were so institutionalized. It was heartbreaking.”



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