Recently, I watched a movie called The Magdalene Sisters. It was a compelling story. My curiosity piqued, after seeing the movie, I read a book called Ireland's Magdalen Laundries, which exposed how these laundries functioned as part of an attitude that wished to confine and contain elements of society deemed unfit, i.e., people on the margins of society.
The Magdalene Laundries
The Magdelene Laundries were run by four different female religious orders in Ireland. They were founded in the mid-nineteenth century as a refuge for prostitutes, but ultimately became a place where women from the fringes of society were placed. Some women had given birth to illegitimate children, were orphans, had been raped, or were viewed as "mentally defective." Some of them were put in those institutions by their own families, because they were viewed as being at risk for having sex outside of marriage. As one survivor said, other than having a baby outside of wedlock, the worst sin in Ireland was to have sex outside of marriage.
The Magdelene laundries were private institutions, which meant that officially there was no state intervention or accountability. The nuns in the laundries had free labour, but were really not responsible to any outside governing body. There was no recourse for the women in the laundires except the Catholic Church.
A Brutal Life
Life there was, in a word, brutal. These were not coin-operated, Maytag laudromats; these were industrial laundries, utilizing equipment that girls as young as 12 should not have had to use. The girls received no financial remuneration, nor were they given any education. Some girls were told they were being sent to the laundry to learn life skills, but the laundry prepared them for nothing but more of the same hard, demanding work. Having been in a Magdalen laundry was a mark of shame that no girl wanted to admit. Many never told others of where they had been. They were told they were not prisoners, yet they could not leave. And ultimately, with no education and no one to advocate for them, what was the benefit of leaving? They were not allowed to talk to each other while they worked or even in bed at night. There was physical abuse. Their names were changed. Their hair was cut off. They were told they were doing "penance" for sins they didn't understand. Some became so institutionalized that they found it difficult to function outside of the laundry once they did leave.
While the book Ireland's Magdalen Laundries provided analysis of this situation, the book Whispering Hope shared personal accounts of five women who were in a Magdalen Laundry. I couldn't put it down. It was both riveting and disturbing. In one of the accounts, the survivor noted with bitter irony that the order she was placed with, The Sisters of the Mercy, had nothing merciful about it. One woman recounts how she watched one of the other girls, recently having been forced to give up her baby for adoption, try to escape one night by tying sheets together to climb out of a sixth story window. She ended up falling, breaking her neck, and dying. There was no mention of the girl again, and no funeral.
The saddest story came from a woman named Nancy, who was an orphan. She tried to run away on a couple of occasions, but because she had nowhere to go, she ended up returning to the laundry, facing even harsher treatment. When she was about 16, the nuns sent her to work on a farm with a man who beat her brutally, and who at one point, hung her dog in the barn (where she slept) as a punishment. This woman eventually ran away, and was able to find work as a housekeeper and nanny. She remained with this family long after the children grew and moved away. She was never able to form any kind of relationship with a man, or most people, for that matter.
Theology in Action
As I have read and thought about this matter, I am reminded that theology is evident in our conduct. The nuns had a particular view of God, sin, and humanity, and it is reflected in how they treated the girls. There was an overly punitive, harsh attitude toward them, despite the fact that not one of them had done anything to warrant being incarcerated. The nuns seemed to believe the premise that by making the girls suffer physical and emotional abuse, they were helping them do penance. The nuns clearly did not have a biblical understanding of sin or atonement or else they would not have presumed to dole out brutality in the name of penance. If a girl was born out of wedlock, it was cast upon her as her own sin and she was made to pay, and pay frequently. Anyone who has read the Bible recognizes that as an unbiblical attitude. The nuns were not kind. That says something about their belief regarding being made in God's image and loving others as we love ourselves. They reminded me of the Pharisees who were were preoccupied with washings and rituals, but were hard and unmerciful.
I don't know what kind of religious education nuns in Ireland were given, but from the way they treated the girls in the Magdalen laundries, it bares little resemblance to Jesus's attitude toward their namesake, Mary Magdalen, who was indeed shown mercy. I think it is an irony that the laundries bear her name despite clearly being such a harsh place. Part of me is a little shocked at women victimizing other women. It just goes to show that sin is in the heart of us all, and given the right circumstances, it can really run amok.
In 2013, Enda Kenny, the then Irish Taoiseach apologized to the victims of Magdalen laundries. There is a group for survivors, and as their stories are being told, more seem to come forward with their own stories. It is such a sad story, and yet some of the women are so admirable, pressing on and surviving in the midst of something I cannot fathom.