Goldenbridge and The Sisters of Mercy
The Sisters of Mercy (1867) The foundress of this new order of The Sisters of Mercy
was a Miss, or (as it is now usual to call her) Mrs. Katherine McAuley, an Irish lady, who finding herself left in middle life without pressing domestic duties, and the owner of a large fortune, resolved to devote both time and money to the service of the poor. She had no thought of being a nun, but intended to pass a retired life with a few ladies who had gathered round her.
She purchased ground in Lower Baggott Street, on the south side of Dublin, and desired an architect to build a house for her. Some large rooms fit for teaching poor children, and a chapel, was the order she gave him; but without intending it he built a convent, and without intending it Katherine McAuley and her friends were training themselves as religious by their life of self-denial and devotion. When she saw what the designs of Providence were, she meekly submitted; and at fifty-two years of age went to serve a year’s novitiate in the Presentation convent in George’s Hill. There her cell can still be seen, the tiny room in which no doubt many secret victories were won, and many fervent prayers breathed for the anxious future before her, by the humble, patient novice. In 1831 the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy was founded; in 1841 it was approved by the Holy See, and in that same year Mrs. McAuley died, leaving fourteen houses of her institute in existence.
The convent in Baggot Street is an extensive building, but with a very plain exterior. Within, much pains have been spent on decorations of a strictly conventual character. The cloisters and convent chapel are beautiful; there are immense poor schools in the rear of the building, a large House of Mercy, and a home for pupil teachers. The three main objects for which Mrs. McAuley designed her order were the care of poor schools, the visitation of the poor, and the charge of a House of Mercy, and to these three works whenever practicable the Sisters are bound by rule to attend. The House of Mercy is meant as a temporary refuge for respectable girls and women out of employment. It is chiefly filled by servants out of place, and has often proved a most valuable place of refuge for those in danger. The inmates are taught to labour for their own support, either at needle or laundry work, and the Sisters try to get situations for them. It is not intended that they should remain any length of time in the house, but only till they can find employment. In addition to these three works of charity the Sisters may undertake any other, either under their own roof or in branch houses.
The third branch house of the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin is connected with one of the most important institutions in Ireland—the Prison Refuge at Golden- bridge. It was in Ireland that the problem how to reform our female criminals was first solved, and it is mainly owing to the Sisters of Mercy that the solution was accomplished. The reformation of a female prisoner has long been acknowledged to be a harder task than that of a male—indeed, many have deemed it impossible. She has sinned more against the instincts of her better nature, the consequences of her crime have had a more hardening effect upon her, but, above all, the absence of hope has a fatal effect on her character. And this despair is really not much to be wondered at. If a poor woman endure her sentence patiently, and keep the prison rules, she goes out at the end of her imprisonment with very little prospect for the future, save that of fresh dishonesty. What is to become of her? She has no character. Who will employ a discharged prisoner? The sharp witticism of Dr. Whately, that he who employed a convict servant would soon have no spoons left in the house but himself, is an article of faith to the vast majority of people, and nobody feels himself bound to risk losing his plate, or his other household gods. For men there are a dozen modes of hard, rough out-door employment to which they can turn; but take away from a woman domestic service, charing, and laundry work, and there is nothing left to her but wretched needlework, at which even respectable women can hardly earn their bread. It must seem almost like a mockery to speak to a poor prisoner of the mercy of God, when the mercy of her fellow-creatures is so sternly withheld. For many years past the Sisters of Mercy have been permitted to visit the female prisoners at Mountjoy Prison, the principal and strongest prison in Ireland, and one which is now too familiar to us, from its association with the Fenian prisoners. Here the Sisters exercise a most beneficial influence over the miserable inmates. They instruct them together in class, and it is a rule that no prison official shall be present. Yet this class often consists of wild, desperate women, with great physical strength and easily-roused passions. The matron of Mountjoy described to us once how standing in a prisoner’s cell, with an immense bunch of keys in her hand, she suddenly perceived that the woman was about to spring upon her, in which case the keys would have been sent with all their force against her head. Just in time the matron, a strong, vigorous woman, knocked her assailant down, and thus saved her own life. Among such as these the Sisters move fearlessly, and have never had to suffer. Even the wild din of tongues issuing from those kept all day, and many a day, in enforced silence, is hushed by the uplifted finger or the gentle tones of a Sister of Mercy. Great good was therefore to be expected from placing these women for the concluding part of their sentence in a refuge under the sole care of these Sisters. The proposition was made to the superioress in April 1856, and in a few days only she was ready to begin the work. Before passing to the Refuge, I must say a word about Mountjoy Prison, although I do not wish to reckon it among the ‘ Irish homes’ that I have visited. It stands at the north of Dublin, in an open, airy situation. It is a prison for men and women, the two compartments being of course entirely distinct. The head matron of the female prison is a person of very superior attainments. A lady by birth and education, she does not content herself with merely doing her duty, but throws all the powers of her mind and heart into the work. She evidently desires the real reformation of the prisoners, and gives her cordial co-operation to the efforts of the Sisters of Mercy. Her subordinates are carefully chosen, and are influenced by the excellent qualities of their superior. It is a dismal occupation to take a walk through Mountjoy; the long white corridors and walls unrelieved by a patch of colour; narrow iron staircases running here and there to upper stories and galleries; long rows of cells, with closely locked doors, and a little window in the middle through which the matron can peep, or the prisoner make any necessary want known. Pacing up and down a corridor containing a number of those cells, is a matron dressed in black, whose countenance and manner show you she is firm, resolute, patient, and prepared for emergencies. Here she must stay an allotted number of hours, till her watch is over, and she is relieved by another officer. The next class of prisoners are allowed the luxury of having their cell door open, and thus seeing all that passes, in the occasional passage of a matron, or some other official; yet this slight break in the dread monotony of solitary confinement is valued, and looked on as a reward. We went to the school where prisoners attend in detachments for one hour per day. This is one of their greatest enjoyments, and its deprivation, therefore, is used as a punishment for certain offences. It was curious to see women of every age, even to the grey-haired, standing in classes with spelling-books, like so many children, many of them able to learn but little, but eager and interested in the employment, which broke the monotony of their days, and gave them some new ideas. Women in the advanced classes of prison life work in a common room, then pass to the laundry, and other employments in the prison. Through all these stages they must pass, and behave well in each before they can enter the Refuge ; it is intended strictly as a reward for good conduct, and the hope of getting there, the hope for the future, is the star that rises on the dark night of their despair and recklessness, and leads them on to exertion. The Sisters in their visits to the prison, are able to learn the character of the women, and this is an immense help to them in the management of the Refuge. I visited the chapels of the prison, both Catholic and Protestant. The male prisoners are on one side, the female on the other. There are three chapels in Mountjoy, Catholic, Established Church, and Presbyterian, and each has its chaplain. The Catholics are so numerous as to require the services of two priests. We need hardly say that the Catholics in Mount- joy and all Irish prisons are in an overwhelming majority over the Protestants; yet for the small minority ample religious provision is made, while in England for the large masses of Catholic prisoners, because they happen to profess a faith different from that of the State religion, in many prisons very little or no religious provision is made. The most affecting sight in Mountjoy was the infant school. There are collected together the poor little creatures whose mothers are in jail. Some were sleeping in their cots, others toddling about the floor, others a little older learning their letters. They were clean and nicely cared for, and looked happy enough ; many of them very pretty, and all with the innocent baby faces which appeal to every heart. Poor little beings, what a strange fate is theirs ! there for a brief space sheltered from the storm, but soon to go out and make experience of life in its roughest, bitterest aspect. How soon from many of them the innocence of childhood will be snatched ! Perhaps raging in some of the cells above, or in the ‘ punishment cells,’ tearing about like wild beasts, were the mothers of some of them, to whom their future training would be committed. I know not how any one could look at these rosy, smiling faces, without shedding tears; it is at least a merciful arrangement which permits their being cared for during these few years, and taught holy lessons which may linger as fragments in the memories of some. Nothing strikes a visitor to Goldenbridge Refuge more than the un-prison life look of the place. It is a striking contrast to the great formidable-looking military barrack opposite to it. A wooden gate leads into the domain, and on each side of the gate is a building, that on the right a disused Protestant church, on the left the schools; for the Sisters add on to their prison work schools for the poor children in the neighbourhood. Golden Bridge is a little way out of Dublin, on the Inchicore Road, but it lies in the midst of a large and poor population. The house is by no means suited for the purpose, and immense pains, contrivance, and perseverance were needed to enable the Sisters to receive prisoners there at all—out-houses, lofts, and sheds have been converted into dormitories and work rooms, while money has been collected, and large, fine laundries built. But what cannot be done by the right person in the right place? and fortunately for the prisoners the order of the Sisters of Mercy possessed among its members one whose qualities of head and heart rendered her pre-eminently suited for the undertaking. I cannot speak of Mother Mary Magdalene, or Mrs. Kirwan (as she is generally called), as 1 would, because she is still among us, and to those who have done, and are doing great deeds, praise sounds like an impertinence; it is sufficient to say that she has made the Refnge what it is—a success ; she has ‘ redeemed multitudes of women, and redeemed them permanently to virtue, society, and God.’ She has touched ‘ seared consciences, and softened flinty hearts.’* Hundreds of women who would have spent their time in Mountjoy Prison in a state of chronic rebellion and passion, engendered by despair, and gone out worse than they came in, more ready to sin against society and to break the laws of God, have struggled through their prison life, done well at the Refuge, and are now earning their bread respectably, the past forgiven and forgotten. And though these latter are rare, there have been more consoling cases still where the repentance has been of that depth and fervour which reminds us forcibly of the great pattern of penitents, to whom much was forgiven because of her great love and contrition. Many of the prisoners are not fallen women, and one of them who had unhappily lost her good name, although indeed she had been more ‘ sinned against than sinning,’ wept with many and bitter tears over her lost innocence, humbling herself in spirit infinitely below her companions. ‘ Ah ! Rev. mother, if I were but like the others !’ she would say, and thankfully accepted the hardship of her lot as a deserved and salutary penance. A girl, whom we will call Mary, was left an orphan at twelve years of age with a little brother. They had an aunt who offered to take the girl provided she deserted her brother. This she refused, and the two children wandered about the country all but starving. At last they stole some trifling thing and were sent to prison for a short time, but long enough for the tide of evil to flow over them. They came out much worse than they went in. Mary lost her innocence, and was again and again committed for theft; at last she fortunately received a sentence for seven years, and after spending nearly four in prison came to the Refuge. There she learnt to sorrow truly for the past, and her conduct was so satisfactory that the Sisters placed her in service in Dublin, in the house of one of those charitable ladies who are willing to help on the good work by giving these poor creatures a trial. Here she remained two years, and at their close received an offer of marriage from a respectable bricklayer well able to keep her; but she would not accept him till Mother Magdalene had seen him and approved of the match. This being done, all seemed going well, when one day Mary appeared before the Mother flushed and agitated. ‘ I want you, ma’am, to tell Dennis everything about me; I could not deceive him; I could not marry him unless he knows all, and I don’t know how he will take it.’ Mary went out and in came Dennis, not at all over-pleased to find there was any hitch in his love affairs. ‘ What do you know of Mary ? ‘ said the superioress.—’ Everything that is good, ma’am,’ answered Dennis warmly ; ‘ what have you to say against her ?’— ‘ Nothing,’ replied the nun; ‘ and what she has now bid me do raises her in my estimation, but she wishes you to know she was once a convict at Goldenbridge.’—’ I know that, ma’am,’ said he with much feeling; ‘ the housemaid at Mrs. found it out and told it to me, thinking to turn me from Mary, but I have never spoken to her since, I thought it was so mean ; and as for Mary, I think more highly of her than ever.’ They were married, and at a year’s end Mary died in giving birth to her first child. Almost her last thought of earth was to see again the loved face of the nun who had indeed been a true friend and mother to her. Dennis came afterwards to Mother Magdalene weeping bitterly over his loss. ‘ Oh, ma’am,’ said he, ‘ she was a wife for a prince, beautiful and so gentle; all the people in the house we lodged in respected her, though she spoke to no one but me. After our marriage she could not rest till she had told me the history of her life, but I never cast a thought on it after.’ Another girl in her early youth had been betrayed and deserted; she wandered about with her baby begging; falling into the hands of an abandoned woman she was persuaded to desert her baby, and take to theft and evil courses. She allowed the tempter to take the baby from her arms, and then she followed her bad counsel; but a perpetual remorse haunted her, and she strove to drown it in reckless sin. She came to the Refuge; repentance began to do its work, and her sorrow was deep and overwhelming. She behaved very well, and on leaving was respectably placed in America. Friends, home, honest earnings, a good name were again hers ; but still she heard that feeble wail, still she felt the last pressure of that little burden on her bosom, and though she went thankfully, patiently about her work, she said there would be a shadow over her to the end of her days. Strange and romantic indeed are many and many of the histories which have come to the ears of the Sisters in this Refuge; these lives have often been tragedies acted in secret, and would outdo the plot of any sensational novel. Placing out the prisoners when they leave is the chief care of the nuns;.it is the completion of their work, without which all the previous labour would be wasted; and it is not easy. A prisoner who has done well during her prison term has earned money which makes her a prize for the moment to her ‘ pals ‘ and former evil companions. A girl who had been convicted of sheep stealing and committed to prison in Cork, there made acquaintance with two bad women, and on her being sent to Mountjoy, made a bargain with her friends to call for her as soon as her sentence should have expired. When sent to the Refuge she was found to be deceitful and cunning, and little hope was entertained of her reformation. But a change passed over her, and she came to Mother Magdalene to tell her story, and asked to be saved from her prison acquaintances. She was sent to America, where she was found to have respectable friends; and when at the appointed time the two women came faithfully to fulfil their pledge (for when did Satan ever forget his appointments ?) it was with no little jubilation of heart that the Sisters told them she whom they sought was gone away. The enquirers seemed greatly astonished at the news. In America this girl did well, and wrote grateful letters. Against dangers such as she was exposed to the nuns have to guard many, and they have to provide employment for their charges suited to their characters and capabilities. Many emigrate, and as the Sisters of Mercy have convents in most of the colonies, they are sent to these by the Sisters from the Refuge, and thus find friends and helpers in a strange land. Mother Magdalene’s influence over the prisoners is unbounded: a result not so much to be wondered at, because she is one of those beings on whom the gift of influence has been bestowed; and the intellectual and the refined cannot resist its spell. And all the powers of a mind fitted to shine pre-eminently in the most accomplished circles are exerted to win the confidence and direct aright the character of these poor outcasts. One of them was sent to service at a great distance from Dublin; she behaved very well and remained a quarter; at its end her wages were paid, and she was allowed a day’s holiday. She took a return ticket for Dublin, and presented herself at the convent. She had exactly one hour to spare before she had to return to the station, and the price of the ticket had swallowed up nearly all her earnings; but she was quite contented, having accomplished the object of her journey, which was, she said to Mother Magdalene, ‘ to have a good look at you, ma’am;’ and when remonstrated with by the Mother for spending her money on so transient a pleasure when she might have done other things with it, bought a useful book for instance, replied, ‘ And sure ma’am, I mean to do it again.’ After all was it so very transient ? If there are ‘ sermons in stones’ what lessons may not be read from the faces of those we reverence—lessons which may linger in the memory and aid us in the hour of trial. For a long time the two employments of the prisoners were washing and needlework, but Mrs. Kirwan constantly regretted that she was not able to vary these. Some women are not suited or strong enough for laundry work ; and then the long monotony of ‘ stitch, stitch, stitch ‘ is very trying and very hard for them, and tends to keep up that dwelling on self, and reverting to the past, which it is the aim of the Sisters to prevent. In the course of 1866, Mrs. Kirwan ventured on a little experiment, and is attempting the weaving of lindsey. No manufactories of this fabric exist in Ireland, all lindsey, as well as most other articles of wear, is imported; and the people who blame the Irish for not exerting themselves, would be the last to purchase home made goods. Mrs. Kirwan’s experiment is a very courageous one, for it cannot be made without much expense. A manufactory had to be fitted up, looms purchased, and weavers engaged for a certain time to teach the art. When I visited the Refuge several looms were in operation, worked by the prisoners, and various bales of lindsey manufactured by them were ready for inspection; it seemed very well made, and as good as what would be seen in a London shop. If this experiment should succeed, it will not have to trust entirely to the mercy of the public, for the Dublin Sisters of Mercy, with their five branch houses, and the various institutions under their charge, are consumers of a great deal of lindsey, which might be supplied from their own looms. At all events the employment has had an excellent effect on the women; the work interests them and they labour away with good will. Passing through the laundries we saw two pretty little children whose mothers were among the prisoners. When a prisoner with a child is sent to the Refuge, the child comes also, and the mother can see it at the intervals of her work, and this must have a humanising and softening effect on the poor creatures. It must be remembered that the whole cost of this Refuge is by no means defrayed by the Government; it allows only five shillings per week for each convict. Out of this and the small profit arising from the prisoners’ labour, every expense has to be met. The erection of the laundries cost a large sum: the Sisters borrowed it at the usual rate of interest, and have to pay off the principal. All this anxiety, responsibility, and burden falls on them, in addition to the heavy cares of the Refuge itself. There is an erroneous idea in Ireland that institutions under Government do not need further help—on the contrary they often need it more than others, for it would be a grievous thing if the help that Government offers had to be refused for lack of the necessary funds to meet it. After the Goldenbridge Refuge was in operation, a Protestant one was opened which contains about a dozen prisoners. The Government extend the same help to it as to the Catholic, and in this respect there is no cause for complaint; and as far as the Refuges are concerned, all creeds are treated by- Government with perfect justice and fairness. Before leaving the Refuge I visited the schools, divided from it by a long strip of grass land. Several hundred children attend this school, and as the population around is extremely poor, an industrial school is added to the literary ones. The Protestant church on the other side is an absurd object, being utterly- empty and disused; there would be no difficulty in the Sisters purchasing it, except that by law a building belonging to the Established Church must remain as it is, whether there be a congregation or not, and when it is not of the slightest use to any mortal (by Frances Margaret Taylor – 1867).