These Religious Prisons Turned Orphans, Young Girls, and Pregnant Women into Slaves Inside Convent Walls

These Religious Prisons Turned Orphans, Young Girls, and Pregnant Women into Slaves Inside Convent Walls

Donna Patricia Ward - February 22, 2019

These Religious Prisons Turned Orphans, Young Girls, and Pregnant Women into Slaves Inside Convent Walls
Abbotsford Convent at Abbotsford in Melbourne. Wikipedia.

10. Farm Girl Inmates at Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne, Australia

Samuel Moss traveled to Australia and made a fortune in gold mining. He donated money and land to construct the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne. The complex had many buildings as well as farmland. In the 1840s Irish sisters from the Order fo the Good Shepherd arrived to run the farm, orphanage, and reform and industrial schools. Any girl that was considered to be in “moral danger” was sent to the convent by family members, parish priests, or police as a way to protect their virtue.

The Convent operated a dairy farm, poultry farm, and cropland as well as a commercial laundry. The nuns also taught the inmates how to make lace, which was sold in city markets. The convent was large and could house up to 1,000 girls and women that included orphans, those viewed as moral degenerates, ward’s of the state, and the downtrodden. The inmates worked in the Convent’s kitchen, nursery, and as janitors. No matter the work, compensation was not earned making it difficult for inmates to leave before they were mutually discharged. The complex closed in 1975 and in 2017 it was listed on the Australia National Heritage List.

These Religious Prisons Turned Orphans, Young Girls, and Pregnant Women into Slaves Inside Convent Walls
Convent of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls in Louisville, Kentucky circa 1931. University of Louisville.

9. A Home for Colored Girls in Louisville, Kentucky

Segregation of whites and blacks infiltrated even religious life in the United States. Louisville, Kentucky sits on the Ohio River and was a major slave-trade city in the years leading up to Emancipation. Just across the river was freedom and escaped slaves flocked to Louisville for a chance to flee their bondage. The Catholic Church was a formidable force in the city and had sever orders running reform homes for white girls. By 1931, the Convent of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls was fully operational.

When authorities believed that African American parents were not caring for their children, they simply took them. Institutional racism prevented many African American families from jobs and earning a livable wage. As a result, they simply could not afford to care for their family. Seemingly neglected children and unwed teens were arrested and then sent to the Convent for Colored Girls where they worked in the commercial laundry washing linens for black-owned hotels and private citizens. As the US Supreme Court began dismantling institutional segregation, the Catholic Church closed the convent in the mid-1950s.

These Religious Prisons Turned Orphans, Young Girls, and Pregnant Women into Slaves Inside Convent Walls
House of the Good Shepherd, 1895. University of Milwaukee Libraries.

8. Escaping from The Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Milwaukee

Settled mostly by German farmers seeking cheap land in the 19th century, Milwaukee evolved into an industrial center that acted like a northern suburb of Chicago roughly 80 miles to the south. Breweries littered the city and at one time, there were more drinking establishments per capita than anywhere else in the world. Poles, Russians, Bohemians, Irish, and French Europeans arrived in droves to work in the breweries and factories. Wages reflected the rest of the nation in that they were low and despite working 14 hour days, families remained in poverty.

As industry overtook Milwaukee, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd established a home for “wayward girls, and children.” Behind the high walls the inmates were forced to pray and wash linens for area hotels without pay. The nuns provided a religious education and some inmates professed that all they learned was how to pray and “fold sheets.” During a heatwave in 1947, inmates protested their conditions by locking themselves in the laundry rooms, trashing the equipment, and demanding their release to a state facility. Some girls escaped by climbing over the 12 foot stone wall to freedom. The facility closed in the mid-1960s.

These Religious Prisons Turned Orphans, Young Girls, and Pregnant Women into Slaves Inside Convent Walls
Home of the Good Shepherd, Seattle, Washington circa 1907. University of Washington Libraries.

7. Housing the “Incorrigible” at The Good Shepherd Home in Seattle

The Sisters of the Good Shepherd opened a home for “incorrigible” girls in 1907 in Seattle. When the order arrived in Seattle in 1890, young women and girls caught out on the street were arrested by police. Many of these females ran away from neglect, abuse, and hunger. There were some that seemed to find trouble wherever they went. These “wayward” girls, once arrested, spent the night in jail and then were handed over to the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.

For 106 years, the Sisters operated a convent, school, orphanage, commercial laundry, and wing for unwed mothers and wayward girls. The Sisters did not communicate with their neighbors on the other side of the high wall that enclosed the 11 acre site. This led to rumors that pregnant teens entered into the convent and never left. These girls remained on the “bad side” of the convent and labored in the laundry with the heart-wrenching pain that their illegitimate children were taken from them and adopted to respectable couples. The Good Shepherd closed the home and the laundry in June 1973.

These Religious Prisons Turned Orphans, Young Girls, and Pregnant Women into Slaves Inside Convent Walls
Print of Magdalen Benevolent Asylum at 5th Avenue and 88th Street, New York. Google Images.

6. Kidnapping Prostitutes into Forced Rehabilitation at Inwood House, New York

Lower Manhattan was littered with Flop houses, opium dens, taverns and brothels littered the streets and alleys below 23rd street during the 19th century. Wages were notoriously low and many women found themselves supplementing their factory wages as hired escorts and prostitutes. To counter this most unladylike profession, the New York Magdalen Society formed in 1830 to reform females who had “abandon themselves to prostitution.” Women of high society went downtown and invaded the brothels and taverns, kidnapped young prostitutes, and then forced them to live in a home and undergo rehabilitation.

The inmates labored inside the commercial laundries for no pay and down time consisted of religious instruction and additional domestic training. The Magdalen Society moved their home to Inwood in upper Manhattan in 1907. Overlooking he Hudson River, the inmates were kept inside by a 13 foot wall that surrounded the property. Escapes often resulted in injuries that never fully healed, forcing the women to remain at Inwood Home until their death. In the 1920s, women that suffered from venereal diseases were treated with bichloride of mercury, which often poisoned them. The reports of abuse, neglect, and even death inside the Inwood Home never ceased to infiltrate the news.

These Religious Prisons Turned Orphans, Young Girls, and Pregnant Women into Slaves Inside Convent Walls
Interior of Magdalen Laundry in Dublin. Google Images.

5. A Mass Grave at “The Home” in Tuam, County Galway, Ireland

Called “The Home” by locals in Tuam, the Bon Secours order of nuns operated a mother and baby home in County Galway between 1921 and 1961. Unwed pregnant women harmed their families through shame that would prevent them from work and housing. If a family did not have money to send their daughters or sisters to England or America, they sent them to “The Home,” a magdalen laundry. Inside the facility, the nuns provided food and shelter. After giving birth, the moms cared for their babies with assistance from orphaned girls and older inmates. Babies that survived infancy were adopted. Those that died were buried on property near “The Home.”

As women suffered the trauma associated with giving up their child, they were forced to work in the laundry without pay. Many of the babies adopted from the facility were sent to America as a way to ensure that birth mothers would never find their babies. Between 1945 and 1965 over 2,220 Irish babies were adopted from the magdalen laundry. In 2014, an unmarked mass grave was found that contained over 700 dead infant and children buried without ceremony or in a coffin. Examiners determined that most of the dead succumbed to “malnutrition, measles, convulsions, tuberculosis, gastroenteritis and pneumonia.”

These Religious Prisons Turned Orphans, Young Girls, and Pregnant Women into Slaves Inside Convent Walls
The Good Shepherd, Limerick. Google Images.

4. The Limerick Laundry

The Sisters of the Good Shepherd began operating a Magdalen Laundry in Limerick in 1828. Under British rule and later Irish independence in 1921, the order maintained control. The Limerick Laundry was a complex of buildings that included a commercial laundry, an industrial school for girls, an orphanage, a church, and convent. Thousands of girls and women entered the facility over its 150 years of operation. And throughout that time, the Sisters had strict control over the inmates. Each inmate matriculated through each aspect of the laundry first working in the washing room, then the drying and pressing rooms, and finally the packaging room.

Survivors of the laundry proclaimed that they every aspect of their life was controlled by the nuns. Most inmates were sent to the laundry simply because their families lived in extreme poverty and their parents could not adequately care for them. An inmate who entered the Limerick laundry at 17 remained there until she died aged 76! The laundry closed in 1990. Researches have documented the location of 284 women that died at the laundry as inmates. Officials believe that many more died without ceremony or documentation. The complex now houses the Limerick School of Art and Design.

These Religious Prisons Turned Orphans, Young Girls, and Pregnant Women into Slaves Inside Convent Walls
Magdalen Asylum, Galway. Google Images.

3. Lost Girls of the Magdalen Asylums: Helen from Gloucester Street Laundry

Helen was sent to an industrial school when she was two years old. Her parents could no longer take care of her or her seven siblings. Sent to an industrial school, Helen was sent from school to school until she entered the Gloucester Street Laundry in Dublin at 16. Never living in the outside world, Helen gave birth to twin girls when she was 19. Her daughters were adopted when they were 9 months old. She gave birth again at 22 to a boy. When her daughters met her, Helen had an emotional breakdown as she never remembered giving birth to them or their brother.

At the Laundry, Helen’s day began at 4 am where she prayed the rosary in the cold in urine-soaked clothes. Helen was a persistent bed-wetter for which she suffered humiliating abuse from the nuns. Work in the laundry lasted until after sundown. When Helen and her fellow inmates had downtime, they embroidered and made baskets that were sold in town. None of the inmates received pay for their labor in the laundry or from the goods they made. She represents the hundreds of women who were placed in the laundries by the State and then simply forgotten about. Helen died one day shy of her 51st birthday.

These Religious Prisons Turned Orphans, Young Girls, and Pregnant Women into Slaves Inside Convent Walls
Equipment Inside Donnybrook Magdalen Laundry. Google Images.

2. Changed Names at The Donnybrook Magdalen Laundry

The Donnybrook Laundry opened in 1796. By 1837, the Sisters of Charity had taken over the institution and relocated it to Dublin 4. Between 1837 and 1992, inmates cleaned soiled linens from nearby hotels. When inmates arrived at Donnybrook, the nuns changed their name before sending them to strip out of their clothing, bathe, and dress in a new uniform. With names changed, it was difficult for family members who wanted to find sisters or daughters to do so. Any inmate that refused to adhere to her new name was severely punished.

Like other Magdalen Laundries, Donnybrook housed orphans. Younger girls took care of the babies. As these girls aged they cooked for the nuns and then entered into the washing house. Obedient girls were promoted to the pressing room and later the packaging room. Food for the inmates was meager and consisted of mostly leftovers from the nuns and rarely included dairy, eggs, or meat. A private company purchased the Donnybrook Laundry in 1992 maintaining it as a commercial laundry. It closed in 2006. An application to demolish the laundry and build new apartments was withdrawn in 2017 reportedly due to the “potential for burials being uncovered.”

These Religious Prisons Turned Orphans, Young Girls, and Pregnant Women into Slaves Inside Convent Walls
Postcard of Gloucester Street Laundry, Dublin, Ireland. Folklore Project.

1. The Last Magdalen Laundry: The Gloucester Street Laundry in Dublin

Until recently, the powerful conservative Catholic Church controlled almost every aspect of life in the Republic of Ireland. Any young woman that found herself pregnant and unmarried had committed the most dire of all sins. Bringing shame, family members often sent their pregnant sisters and daughters to a magdalen home. The Gloucester Street Laundry in Dublin housed around 100 unwed mothers at a time. Forced to repent for her sin, these young women were hidden away inside the walls of a commercial laundry. Nuns provided shelter and meager food allotments while forcing them to work in laundries while they adopted out the bastard children.

The convent owned trucks. Boys and young men drove the trucks to Dublin hotels, picked up soiled linens, and then delivered them to the Gloucester Street Laundry. The nuns made sure that there was not contact between the divers and the “penitents.” Historians believe that over 40% of the inmates at the laundry entered as unwed pregnant young women. Many inmates returned to life in Dublin and beyond, their babies long removed from their care. Others remained institutionalized for the rest of their life. The Gloucester Street Laundry shuttered good on 25 October 1996. At the time of closure the oldest female resident was 79.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Stansell, Christine. City of Women: Sex and Class in New York 1789-1860. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Congregation of the Sisters of Misericorde– Wikipedia.

Magdalene asylum – Wikipedia.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Magdalen Society of Philadelphia Records. Philadelphia’s Library of American History. 2016. Pdf.

Inwood’s Old Magdalen Asylum. My Inwood. July 13, 2013

1947 heatwave caused Catholic school girls to “go wild”. By Pete Ehrmann. Jul 21th 2011.

Home of the Good Shepherd (Seattle). Essay. Toby Harris. 29th May 2002.

Lasy Days of a Laundry. GARY CULLITON. Sep 25, 1996. The Irish Times.

Mass grave of up to 800 dead babies exposed in County Galway. Cahir O’Doherty. May 26, 2014. Irish Central.

Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries: I hope my birth mother can now rest in peace. Samantha Long. 19 February 2013. The Telegraph.

Donny Brook. Justice for Magdalenes Research.