Magdalene Laundries: An American survivor’s interview (Exclusive)

The Washington Times Online Edition

Magdalene Laundries: An American survivor’s interview (Exclusive)

DALLAS, February 9, 2013 – Courage has a name: It is Diana O’Hara. Diana is a survivor of the Magdalene Laundries operated in the United States by the Good Shepherd Sisters, a Roman Catholic religious institute for women.

The order is among those that are being charged with the enslavement and abuse of thousands of woman in what are called “Magdalene Laundries.”

Diana’s childhood slipped away while she was trapped by walls of stone and hearts of barbed wire.

In an exclusive interview, she shares her story with the Communities.

A self described “Big Mouthed Irish Girl,” Diana O’ Hara was born in Buffalo, New York, into a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic mother. At the age of four months, she was removed from her home for her own safety and placed into foster care, where she remained until the age of ten.

Foster care had given Diana two parents who loved her and some semblance of structure in her life.

When Diana heard her foster parents speak of having to return her to Social Services, she became possessed by fear and started running away until she was returned to Social Services and placed back into the foster care system.

Diana became caught in an endless cycle, shuffled in and out of Social Services from one foster home to the next.

Between the ages of ten and twelve, she passed through no fewer then 11 different foster homes.

At the age of 12, Diana was sent back to live with her alcoholic mother, a lounge singer who rarely came home and spent most of her time in nightclubs with different men.

During that time, Diana began receiving unwanted visits from a man in his twenties who had found out she was home alone. One day he forced his way into the apartment and molested her. Despite Diana’s efforts to stop him, he returned time after time. When she tried to tell her family, her grandmother punished her for having sex by hanging her out of a second story window by her ankles.

The stay with her mother was short-lived, and Diana returned to foster care, where she drifted from family to family. One overbearing set of older foster parents dismissed her as “difficult” and sent her to a “Protestant Home” which was ironically located across the street from the club where her mother was a singer.

One night, Diana decided to sneak out and confront her mother. Drunk and angry, Diana’s mother would have nothing to do with her. When Diana returned to the “Protestant Home” her mother followed her screaming that the Protestants were not monitoring Diana closely and demanded they send her to the “nuns.”

Only fourteen, Diana entered the gates of the Good Shepherd Laundry in Buffalo, New York with the lable of “incorrigible.” The Laundry, run by Irish Catholic nuns and priests, was a place where young girls aged fourteen to eighteen did penance for their sins.

“I could feel the evil as it descended and began to wrap its arms around me as the scraping sound of the steel gates opening shook the very core of my soul,” Diana says. “My mind just stopped and I could feel myself shift into survival mode.”

The Laundry, surrounded by towering walls of stone topped with barbed wire, was a “holy place meant to save the souls of young girls.” In reality, it was a prison of fear that would forever haunt Diana and the other survivors.

A scary buildingA scary building

As she entered the Laundry, a nun silently escorted Diana through endless stone tunnels. With each step she took along the rough cobbled floors, hope slowly drained away.

She finally found herself shoved into a small room with a man wearing a suit, Diana recalls, that looked as if he had slept in it for several days. The man, a doctor, fixed his stare on Diana as she felt her skin begin to crawl. “Well, what do you think, is she a virgin?”

The nun laughed. The doctor only smiled, and as the nun turned and left the room, Diana was thrust into the depths of a new hell as the doctor slowly moved towards her.

She was powerless as the doctor overpowered and raped her.

The walls of the Good Shepherd Laundry were not only a physical prison, but a prison of the soul. Diana endured her suffering alone and in forced silence. Within the walls of the Laundry, talking was allowed only when the nuns clapped their hands.

Violating this rule led to severe punishment.

The Good Shepherd Laundry in Buffalo was comprised of six units, each unit housing thirty girls. Dinner was six girls per table, and during her first night Diana found that nightmares could indeed live outside your dreams.

As she sat in the deafening silence of the dining hall that first night, a sudden scream broke the silence. As the screams continued, no one looked up from their plates or spoke a word. Diana would soon discover that directly outside the dining hall there was a narrow, tall broom closet. When any of the young girls misbehaved, she was locked inside the closet, sometimes for days.

“If you pulled your knees into your chest and placed your back against the wall you could sit down and maybe sleep but you were in severe pain when you finally stood up,” Diana says. “The nuns would shove a bucket into the room so you could go to the bathroom.”

There also existed what was known as the “Dungeon Room,” an old shower room with stone benches. You could be locked in this room for bad behavior as well.

“You were in total darkness in the Dungeon Room,” Diana recalls. “As you sat in silence you could hear a high pitched squeal begin to grow louder and louder. Then your body would shake in fear as you felt the rats begin to crawl over your body.”

Diana soon learned that screaming, or showing any kind of emotion, only served to expose a vulnerability to later be exploited by her jailers. If you screamed or cried while you were in the “Dungeon Room,” it was the first place that the nuns would put you when you broke the rules.

When the door finally opened, Diana says, the light stung your eyes as they adjusted from the blackness; what followed next was a severe beating. Diana told me that the nuns would often say while beating her that it was to “make her strong.”

*****

The Good Shepherd Laundries were founded on the premise that young girls needed to do “penance” to absolve them of their sins, and in the archaic view of the Catholic order that ran them, that meant suffering for your sins.

Diana told me of how her knees bled from long hours spent kneeling on the hard cobblestone floors, and beatings were a routine occurrence with each new transgression. Every young woman who entered the Good Shepherd Laundry was constantly reminded she was sinful, and that her time within the prison of hopelessness was to cleanse her of her sins.

The nuns and priests who dispensed the harsh and cruel punishments believed they were doing it for the girls’ own good.

Diana spoke of a group within the Laundry she calls the “Shadow Women.”

Clad entirely in black, with veils covering their faces, they walked the halls single file, heads down, the sound of their footsteps the only recognition that life existed beneath the black folds of cloth that covered every inch of their bodies.

These were older girls, known as the “Sisters of the Seven Sorrows,” who felt that they were so sinful that they devoted their lives to the Laundry.

These women could never become nuns, but they suffered for their sins as they sacrificed their lives in search of redemption that would not come.

*****

 For a young woman captive in the Laundry, the days were filled with a minimal dose of primary education and an intense focus on Catholic Doctrine, which was followed by work in the laundry cleaning soiled linens and clothing.

Nights were filled with silence as no talking was allowed and books were not allowed anywhere except in the cramped classroom.

In the dormitory, girls sat in silence, sleep only a temporary escape from the horror that would return at sunrise. Every day was a carbon copy of the one before, the only change the increasing intensity of the punishments.

The Laundries supported themselves with a slave labor force of young girls who were unpaid. Large profits were made from the abuse of the girls sent to the laundries for violation of a strict feminine moral code that became a blanket for sentencing those from impoverished families to slavery that benefited not only the Catholic Church, but also others.

Diana says that young girls from poor families were targeted, and that a corrupt system that included the police, judges and Social Services constantly replenished the labor force. Girls from poor families or those who were constantly in trouble who could not be placed by the system were “dumped” into the Good Shepherd Laundries.

Even darker transactions haunted the halls of the Good Shepherd Laundries. Diana tells of illegal adoptions that were a common occurrence. Unwed and pregnant young women were given no choice except to give their children up for adoption.

Babies were sent from the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland for adoption by parents in the United States. Diana says that the official story was that the babies came from South Buffalo, a predominantly Irish area of the city, but the sheer number of adoptions could not have come from such a small area.

Diana eventually left Buffalo’s Good Shepherd Laundry, only to be thrown into a chaotic system that swept her from one place to the next. Within a year of leaving the Laundry in Buffalo, she found herself at the gates of another Good Shepherd Laundry, this one in Albany, New York.

After a few days a social worker spoke to Diana and asked her how she was doing. She responded, “Well I haven’t been raped, beaten or locked in any closets yet, so I’d say things are going pretty well!”

The social worker replied in a stern voice, “You will never speak of these things!” Diana knew that even if she did, the system that had placed her there would not allow the justice she deserved to see the light of day.

At the age of seventeen Diana O’Hara walked away from the Good Shepherd Laundry in Albany New York, but a part of her still remains there.

As a survivor of child abuse, I understand the trauma that can be caused when your innocence is stolen and your childhood has been vandalized. Diana O’ Hara struggles each day with the pain of what happened to her as a helpless young girl, but she lives her life as a beacon of strength and an example of an indomitable spirit.

Each day she lives her life as a victory over those who tried to break the spirit of a “big mouthed Irish girl” who became one of the most courageous women I have ever met.

_________________________

Diana O’ Hara offers support for others who have suffered within the walls of the Good Shepherd Laundries through her Facebook page, American Victims of Magdalenes and Good Shepherd.

She is a courageous, strong and passionate advocate for those who have suffered within the Laundries, and she is in the process of setting up additional resources for survivors which will be posted here

I am working with Diana and other survivors to help find justice for the American Victims of the Magdalene and Good Shepherd Laundries. Ireland has admitted state involvement in the operation of the Magdalene Laundries operated in that country, and has outraged many by not offering a full apology.

Survivors and their families in Ireland continue to fight for the justice they are due. In the United States there has been no acknowledgement or investigation of the Good Shepherd Laundries that operated here. I urge the Obama administration to lend their support in helping these survivors find not only justice, but also peace in their lives before they are just a memory.

You can contact Diana or me by sending a message through the Webmaster for the Communites@WashingtonTimes using the web form located on this page.

The story that Diana tells is echoed in the stories of others I spoke with. In the coming weeks I will recount the experiences of two other courageous survivors of the Good Shepherd Laundries of the United States, Bonnie Green and Patricia Noel.

I hope you will remember these women for their courage and bravery and join me in the fight for justice. Let President Obama know that the pain and suffering forced on these women is a part of history that will not be forgotten and that justice for every American can be a reality in their lifetime.

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Update:

A Survivor of the Magdalene Laundries speaks out: Bonnie’s story

Bonnie Armijo, a survivor of the American Magdalene Laundries, continues the fight for justice Photo: Bonnie Armijo

 DALLAS, May 1, 2013 – Bonnie Armijo awoke from the warm embrace of a dream and grimaced as she realized she was back in her bed on the third floor of St. Anne’s Institute in Albany, New York.

St. Anne’s was a Magdalene asylum for girls who had been labeled by either the courts or their families as having “fallen” from moral virtue. Established by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages to provide a place where reformed prostitutes would cleanse their sins in preparation for marriage, these institutions proliferated across Europe into Ireland, Scotland and across the ocean to Australia, Canada and the United States. They took a dark turn during the industrial revolution in the 1800’s and became workhouses where girls as young as fourteen worked in laundries and were subject to a cruel and abusive form of penance to “restore their virtue.”

As a young girl of fifteen, the Irish singer Sinead O’Connor spent eighteen months in a Magdalene Laundry. Her Saturday Night Live appearance that sparked huge controversy when she ripped up a picture of the Pope was motivated by the sexual and physical abuse she had suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church.

Singer Sinead O'Connor on SNL in 1996 and more recentlySinger Sinead O’Connor on SNL in 1996 and more recently

Various religious orders ran the Magdalene Asylums, and St. Anne’s was one of many asylums operated by Sisters from the Order of the Good Shepherd in the United States.

The few who witnessed the institutions saw prisons with towering stone walls topped with barbed wire, where once inside all hope was stolen from the very depths of your soul.

Back from her dream, Bonnie stirred beneath the shallow blankets that seemed only to invite the cold rather than banish it. Her eyes struggled to focus in the darkness as she rubbed her arms trying to keep warm. The large open room she was in was populated with iron-framed beds and worn cotton sheets, filled with other young girls who soundly slept in the serenity of the darkness.

Bonnie could feel the cool breeze of an early morning wind as her long dark hair danced in its grasp, and December 1966 arrived with a grand entrance across the landscape of the city of Albany.

As she looked around, Bonnie saw a silhouette bathed in the moonlight, and as she looked closer, she made out the figure of a young girl standing with her feet perched upon the windowsill on the precipice of a three story drop, poised to jump.

Bonnie walked slowly toward the window, still unsure whether her dream had ended or if it had morphed into a bottomless nightmare. As she drew closer she recognized the girl standing on the edge of her own demise as someone she had nicknamed “Daffy” referring to the Walt Disney character Daffy Duck. The two had made the journey from the Children and Family Shelter in Long Island to St. Anne’s Institute.

Bonnie cried out, “Daffy don’t do it!” just as her friend began to throw herself into a descent from her third story perch. Bonnie reacted without thinking and grbbed Daffy’s nightgown, pulling her back into the room and on top of her.

Suddenly the atmosphere of the room exploded as the ‘Solidarity Sisters” rushed in to grab “Daffy,” pushing Bonnie aside. The Solidarity Sisters were young girls who believed their sins to be so great they handed their lives over to the Order of the Good Shepherd. Never able to become nuns, they instead became the “enforcers” of the Mother Superior, carrying out punishments that were handed down for violations of an ever-changing rulebook.

The Solidarity Sisters grabbed “Daffy” and began handling her so roughly that one of her teeth was knocked out and blood spread across the white tile floors like a river of fear. The nun in charge of the night shift at St. Anne’s rushed in, awakened from her deep sleep and not wearing the distinctive veil of the order.

The nun began barking orders to the Solidarity Sisters, “Grab her feet!” and then turned to Bonnie “You grab her arms and all of you follow me!” The nun removed a set of large keys hooked together on an enormous iron ring as she headed for the dark stairwell leading to the basement.

At the bottom of the stairs, Bonnie found cells with hard wooden doors with small windows that were closed tightly separating the occupants not only from the world but also from all sense of hope.

‘Daffy” was dropped onto the cold stone floor by the Solidarity Sisters. As Bonnie was pulled from the room the nun slammed the door and inserted the iron key into the lock, and as it turned, it swept away the last memory of Daffy, as she was never seen again.

Bonnie stood stunned as her ears filled with the rising sound of screaming that seemed to come from all around her. It was then that she realized that she had not descended into a basement but into hell where the tortured souls of young girls writhed in agony in a pocket of suffering as the outside world marked time, ignorant of the suffering a stone’s throw away.

Back in her bed, Bonnie sobbed. It seemed only a short time ago that Bonnie was a schoolgirl and life had not yet shown its darker side.

Bonnie’s father was a Sergeant in the Air Force and a full-blooded Navajo, and she had lived the early years of her life traveling from one military base to another. Then her mother and father separated and Bonnie returned with her mother to live with her strict Irish Catholic family in Long Island, New York.

It was during this time that her life began to change for the worse. At the age of nine a friend’s older brother molested Bonnie, and her efforts to speak out about this were dismissed as an overactive imagination. In 1965 at the age of fourteen, Bonnie was kidnapped by a security guard, thrown into his car and driven to his house. Held against her will, Bonnie fought with all of her strength and pushed him off the bed.

Finally free of her attacker Bonnie fled back to her home, but the scars of her abuse at the age of nine made her a hostage of silence.

In an attempt to speak out about the trauma, Bonnie wrote of her experience in a letter to one of her classmates. Bonnie was then called into the principal’s office and admonished her for lying.  She was then expelled.

Bonnie fought depression and thoughts of suicide as her mother remained unsympathetic. Bonnie ran away after hearing a conversation between her mother and her aunt, but police soon found her and took her to the children and family shelter in Long Island.

The next morning, Bonnie appeared before a judge. She was confident that once she told her story, the judge would release her and jail her abuser. Instead, the judge sentenced Bonnie to St. Anne’s Institute until her graduation, which was several years away. Her crime was listed as being incorrigible.

As Bonnie and the three girls handcuffed with her approached the prison that would steal every waking moment of their happiness for the next two and half years, Bonnie felt her heart sink to its lowest depths. Stone walls towered before them topped with barbed wire, and the entrance to this hell was framed by an impenetrable wrought iron gate. The gate swung slowly open, as its motion seemed to rob time away from the four frightened girls. As the van pulled into the ancient courtyard it came to an abrupt stop and the four were led toward the entrance to their new prison. What loomed before them could only be described as an ominous and dark castle, its brick structure cemented together with the silent cries of young girls, desperate and hopeless, trapped in the grip of evil.

Once inside, the girls were greeted by the nun charged with processing new “inmates” as the girls who were sent to St. Anne’s were called. She coldly told the girls they would refer to all the Sisters of the Good Shepherd there as “Mother.” Talking was not allowed unless permission was given. The girls were allowed access to books but only on a limited basis during the basic classes offered.

In the dormitories the girls were not allowed to talk or read and were forced to sit with their hands in their laps. Smoking was allowed and many girls adopted this habit, as it was the only chance for limited conversation without supervision.

As the nun finished her orientation speech, Bonnie and the other girls were led through the dark and damp hallways of the evil castle and into a room. It was here that they were subjected to a rough medical exam that included a full cavity search.

In the dormitory where inmate’s awaited assignment to their “unit”, Bonnie was indoctrinated to the vacuum of compassion that would permeate her stay.

The girls were forced perform cruel forms of penance to atone for their “sins,” and on many occasions were made to kneel and place their hands in front of them with their fingers spread facing inwards. The girls were then made to place their knees on top of their fingers and raise their buttocks as high in the air as possible.

They were forced to scrub uneven brick floors until their knees bled. Sexual attacks could not be avoided by many of the girls.

Bonnie was frequently stricken by asthma attacks but not allowed an inhaler. Girls who tried to help her during these life threatening episodes were told to “leave her alone because she was just trying to get attention,” and were punished for extending a hand to help.

Bonnie also experienced severe physical abuse at the hands of both the Solidarity Sisters and the Sisters themselves. She remembers being struck on the back of the head so hard by one of the sisters that her vision was blurred for days.

Bonnie’s days at St. Anne’s Institute were an unrelenting wave of despair and humiliation. Visitations were limited by the Sisters, and Bonnie had only rare visits from her family totaling three times in the two and a half years she was imprisoned at Anne’s Institute.

Lifelong friendships are often forged within the depths of a struggle against the tide of evil that seeks to consume your soul and banish your self-esteem to oblivion. For Bonnie Armijo that lifelong friend has been with Diana O’Hara and the two have shared the tears and the laughter of true friendship over the years, but they continue to be haunted by the memories that are the ghosts of St. Anne’s

These ghosts follow them to this day and the memories of the abuse they suffered flavors their life with a desperate sense that even though decades have passed, there is a part of them that remains trapped in that prison of stone walls and barbed wire hearts where their innocence was stolen as young girls.

––––––––––––––––––––––

The struggle to free that part of these victims is one that has become one I have become committed to being a part of.  Bonnie Armijo continues to fight for an acknowledgement of what happened to her as she struggles with Multiple Sclerosis and is a passionate and committed advocate to finding a cure for this disease.

If you want to learn more about the fight for justice for the survivors of the American Magdalene Laundries you can join the cause on Facebook at American Victims of Magdalenes and Good Shepherd, and Survivors of Good Shepherd/Magdalene Laundries in North America and on Google +: Survivors of Magdalene/Good Shepherd Laundries.

To understand the Magdalene/Good Shepherd Laundries and the suffering that took place there, it is important to see through the eyes of a survivor. Director Peter Mullan’s 2002 film, “The Magdalene Sisters.” Many survivors say he captures the experience so well that they cannot watch without reliving their own worst nightmare.  Please watch and think of these young girls who have been sentenced to a lifetime of pain and suffering.

Read more: http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/heart-without-compromise-children-and-children-wit/2013/may/1/survivor-magdalene-laundries-speaks-out-bonnies-st/#ixzz2SBSXLfAu
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Sinead O’Connor reveals her abuse in Catholic Magdalene Laundries

Magdalene Laundries: An American survivor’s interview (Exclusive)

SEE RELATED:

Sinead O’Connor reveals her abuse in Catholic Magdalene Laundries

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