Magdalene Asylums/Laundries: Philomena

“We were ostracized because we’d committed a mortal sin. It was really hammered into you.” Philomena Lee

Christian Magdalene Laundries start in the 18th century in England/Ireland, go international and, back in Ireland, close only two decades ago. Named after Mary of Magdala, a complex Biblical presence and so-called prostitute, the Magdalene Laundries (and Asylums) house their communities’ fallen women. The majority of female inmates are pregnant or unmarried mothers, otherwise there is nothing obviously “fallen” about them. A woman may turn herself over to the nuns. More often, families surrender their disgraced daughters. Governments and courts offer no monetary help. The courts occasionally grant fathers some compensation for the loss of a daughter’s household contribution but that is rare and women in desperate circumstances find themselves trapped and forsaken in Christian workhouses.

Magdalene Asylums initially form with the best of intentions and the sincere desire to help the poorest souls. Marie-Rosalie Cadron-Jetté starts Montréal’s Congregation of the Sisters of Misericorde in 1848. Ten years later, in 1858, Protestant Elizabeth Dunlop leads the charge for the Toronto Magdalene Asylum with the mission of “eliminating prostitution by rehabilitating prostitutes.” Prostitutes are plentiful on the streets of large Canadian cities and, as always, socially degraded. Street women face frightful dangers–from the men in their lives and, ironically, from forced incarceration in the by-now dreadful Magdalene workhouses. The asylums, with “Matron” and “Assistant Matron” having complete control over the “inmates,” quickly slide to the dark side. Rehabilitation falls into cruelty. Self-sustaining turns into profiteering. Teaching women how to prepare for a life in service, how to launder, iron and sew, but giving them little in the way of recompense creates indentured servants for the church’s greater economy. Not only free labour but also selling babies adds to coffers. An asylum’s taking away a woman’s infant, putting up her child for adoption, accepting money in the baby-exchange, and sealing the records is simply normal protocol. Normal protocol brings outsized pain, and “Philomena” chronicles one women’s loss, and the fallout from grappling with the guilt and pain the church hammered into her.



Philomena Lee: A mother’s journey

By TODD S. PURDUM | 02/04/14 05:12 AM EST

She is a suburban retiree now, her kindly face creased with all the cares of 80 years. But in Philomena Lee’s twinkling eyes and lilting brogue, it is easy to see and hear the fetching lass she was six decades ago — when she lost her youth to a handsome boy at an Irish carnival, and then their baby son to the Catholic Church, which forced her to give him up for adoption by an American family.

That son grew up to become a consummate Washington insider — chief counsel to the Republican National Committee. And Lee, the real-life woman behind the hit movie “Philomena,” made her first visit to the capital the other day, to see where her son lived and worked, and to lobby on behalf of tens of thousands of other similarly separated mothers and children whose efforts to find each other have been stymied by Ireland’s secret adoption rules. “It’s not so much I’m angry,” Lee said in an interview in a quiet corner of the Ritz-Carlton’s lobby bar in the West End, when asked how she seemed to harbor no bitterness at her fate. “But so sad. So sad.” Lee was just 18 and unmarried when she gave birth to her son, Anthony, at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Tipperary, Ireland in 1952. Three and a half years later, she watched in horror as he was driven away by a family from St. Louis. She would go on to marry, have two other children and spend 30 years as a psychiatric nurse in England. But she never saw her son again. He was renamed Michael Anthony Hess, graduated from Notre Dame and George Washington University Law School and spent 15 years as a lawyer for the Republican Party before dying of AIDS in 1995.

Now Lee and her daughter, Jane Libberton, in league with an Irish organization called the Adoption Rights Alliance, have founded what they call “The Philomena Project,” an effort to pressure the Irish government to open sealed adoption records to mothers and children seeking to find each other. Lee’s own effort to reconnect with her son spanned decades, but took on renewed intensity just over a decade ago when she first told her other children of Anthony’s existence, and Libberton offered to try to find him. With the help of the British journalist Martin Sixsmith, who wrote a novelistic account of the search on which the movie is based, they ultimately tracked down details about his life in the United States. But by then his ashes had already been buried for nine years in a cemetery on the grounds of the abbey where he had been born — sent there at his request. He had been looking for his mother for years, but the nuns never told either mother or son of the other’s quest. “The movie has touched so many people,” said Libberton, who noted that the Philomena Project had just begun trying to raise money and awareness. “So many people have reached out. They just want some tiny bit of information.”

In Britain, adopted children may seek out their birth parents once they turn 18, so Libberton was stunned to learn that is not the case in Ireland, where the government relied for decades on the Catholic Church to shelter unwed mothers, who were compelled to labor at convent laundries and other jobs, and coerced into giving their children up for adoption to American families in exchange for generous contributions to the church. Some separated families have been matched through a fledgling computer registry, but the system is flawed and little publicized, said Mari Steed, the American representative of the Adoption Rights Alliance, who made the rounds on Capitol Hill with Lee and Libberton last week.

“The only bright spot is that all the records have in fact been turned over by the church to the government,” added Steed, who was herself adopted from Ireland and eventually reunited with her birth mother after a 15-year quest. But the records are incomplete, and pending legislation that would make the adoption process more open would not be retroactive.

Lee visited Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), among other lawmakers, to press her cause. Speaking to reporters afterward, McCaskill noted that her own stepchildren are adopted, and that one had reconnected with his birth mother, “so I know firsthand how important it is to keep those doors open.” She said she would consider sponsoring a Senate resolution or formal letter of protest on the issue, and would raise it during the confirmation process for the next American ambassador to Ireland. Lee and Libberton’s stop in Washington was part of a whirlwind tour to promote the movie (which has been nominated for an Academy Award for best picture) that will culminate at the Oscar ceremony in Los Angeles on March 2. Though the movie depicts Lee as having come to Washington in search of her son, this was actually her first visit, and she was looking forward to sightseeing and perhaps getting together with one or two of his old friends. She acknowledged that after she learned his fate, she was at first reluctant to have her story told in public.“I thought about it and thought about it,” she recalled, “and I said that the thing was it might help other women. We were so ostracized because we’d committed a mortal sin. It was really hammered into you.” At this Libberton quietly interjected, “You’re still struggling with it being out there, aren’t you?” “I am,” Lee said. “I am.” –TSP

Movie is based on “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by journalist Martin Sixsmith


Toronto Charter

Rules and Regulations of Industrial House of Refuge for Females

1 8 7 6 

Magdalen(e) Asylum 


1st. The Institution shall be managed by a Committee of ladies, and their report shall be given at the Annual Meeting in January.

2nd. The immediate superintendence of this institution shall devolve upon the Matron, who, under the Committee, shall be guided by prescribed the rules. Two members of the Committee shall visit the Refuge in the manner and at the times hereinafter specified. Any protestant minister resident in the city shall have the right of visiting the Refuge subject to Rule 6th.

3rd.  Great care must be exercised in deciding upon applications for admission; guarding on the one hand, against receiving those who, from caprice or from the temporary advantages afforded, seek only a temporary lodging; and, on the other hand, endeavouring to afford the means of reformation to every fallen woman, without reference to creed or origin, who wish to amend her life.

4th. Great attention shall be paid to the communications from those who apply to the Asylum for servants; and when families shall receive any of the inmates they shall promise to correspond with the Committee.

5th. The members of the Committee shall endeavour to find employment for those who shall have given satisfaction in that they shall exert …

6th. No strangers shall have access to the Asylum or are allowed to address the inmates without the special permission of a member of the Committee; but this shall not prevent the friends of the Matron from visiting her in her own apartments at fit and proper times.

7th. There shall be religious practise in the Asylum every Sabbath day; and it shall be the duty of the Secretary to see that this regulation is duly attended to.

8th. The Committee shall hold a meeting on the first Wednesday of each month at 3 o’clock, when .. shall inspect and examine the accounts. order payments, and transactions other current business.

9th. The Committee shall at each monthly meeting appoint a sub-committee of *Visitors* for the month, consisting of eight members, or two for each week, and it shall be the duty of the visitors of the past and present weeks to meet at the Home with the Secretary and (if possible) with a Directoress, every Wednesday at 3 o’clock, for the purpose of arranging the visitation for at least three days in each week, receiving and discharging inmates, and attending generally ·to the prescribed duties of visitors.

10th. A  by-law shall be passed unless it shall have been proposed at the preceding monthly meeting of the Committee.

11th. The meetings of the Board shall be opened with prayer.

12th. The Committee shall elect by ballot annually from their number six Directoresses, a Treasurer and Secretary.

13th. Duties of  Directoresses. One of their number shall be present and preside at all meetings of Committee, and no meeting shall be held without the written sanction of at least one Directoress, upon receiving a written requisition from at least three members of Committee.

14th. Duties of the Visitors. They shall, during the term of appointment, exercise a general supervision over the internal affairs of the Institution; see that the laws are duly enforced, and give religions counsel and instruction to the inmates as they have opportunity: and no member shall interfere with the internal management of the except in the discharge of their special duties, through the visitors, or at the meetings of committee or subcommittee.

15th. Duties of Secretary. The Secretary shall keep an accurate accounts of the proceedings of all meetings, giving the resolutions submitted in full, with the names of their movers and seconders. Notices of meetings shall be posted by the Secretary to each member of committee in all cases, two days before a meeting is held.

16th. Duties of the Treasurer. The duty of the Treasurer shall be to keep a detailed account of the receipts and expenditures, and of work done by the inmates. She shall record subscriptions and make out the monied list of subscribers, and pay the Directoresses and the Treasurer and Secretary shall see that the books and documents necessary to an examination of the affairs of the Institution be ready periodically.

17th. Order of meetings. Lady Directoress presiding shall at all meetings take the chair at ten minutes after the appointed hour; and after calling the group to and prayer the Secretary will read the minutes of the previous meeting, and shall then submit briefly the various items of business for the day. These shall then be discussed separately in order, and all non-pertinent conversation shall be reserved until business duties are fully discharged and the meeting declared adjourned.

The Matron

1st. The Matron shall keep a book in which she shall record the name of everyone admitted, the date of each submission, her age and background.

2nd. The business of the day shall commence by the Matron reading a portion of the Holy Scripture accompanied with the singing of a psalm or hymn (if practical) and with prayer; and it shall be closed in a similar manner; and both by word and deed the Matron shall endeavour to recommend the religion of the Gospel to those under her charge, always bearing in mind that the salvation of one is vastly more important than the mere outward reformation of many.

3rd. The Matron shall apportion to the inmates the employment for the day, and instruct them in all such handiwork as may not only help to defray the expenses of the Institution, but tend to form habits of industry, which shall encourage them to earn for themselves a suitable life-style maintenance.

4th. The Matron (assisted by members of the Committee) shall at all times exert herself to procure such work as may be beneficial to the women in her care, and at the same time profitable to the Institution, and she shall insist upon inmates’ diligence during the hours of employment, as well as in the performance of their duties.

5th. Applicants shall be received into the Asylum by the Matron on presenting an order to that effect, signed by a member of the Committee.

6th. In the case of sickness, the Matron shall immediately notify the attending physician, and shall abide by his prescriptions.

7th. The Matron shall make out a list of articles required during the week and present it to the weekly Committee at the time of their visit.

8th. The Assistant Matron or sous Matron shall, in the course of her duties, see that all directions given by her shall be faithfully carried out. It shall be her duty to attend the sewing done in the work room, taking care that all the inmates detailed for work there are in their places at the proper time, and that they only leave the room by her permission, and return in due time, and at all times shall keep such order generally as it shall tend to the comfort and benefit of all entrusted to her.


1st. All the inmates who are in good health shall rise at 6 am in summer, and 6 am in winter. Before leaving their rooms, they shall open the windows.

2nd. All inmates shall spread out the bed clothes, and then assemble for family worship and breakfast, and after that make their beds, and then go to their daily work. At 1 o’clock they shall dine, and at 1:30  return to their occupations till 5 p.m. for tea and recreation; and at 8 pm assemble for family worship. after which the inmates shall retire to rest.

2nd. While inmates are engaged in the morning and evening worship due decorum and attention shall be maintained; all during the hours of work, peace and good order shall be expected. Exciting or insulting language and any allusion to past days, except in the way of humility and thankfulness, shall be most strictly prohibited.

3rd. Implicit obedience to the Matron and all respect to her assistant and also to Visitors shall be invariably required …conduct shall be regulated by decorum and propriety.

4th. Inmates may not communicate with their friends or former associates under any circumstances whether by direct communication or writing or a third party.

5th. Inmates shall not be permitted to leave the Asylum until the end of twelve months or until proper arrangements shall be made for them and then only under the authority of the weekly Visitors.

6th. Inmates shall be expelled for wilful and habitual violations of any of the rules and regulations; or for any other deliberate offence opposed to the object and design of the institution.

7th. No inmate after running away will get any clothes that may belong to her except at a WEEKLY meeting.

8th. No one running away a second time will be re-admitted except at a WEEKLY meeting.

9th. The inmates are to wear such dress as may be thought proper and becoming by the Committee; the hair to be plainly confined in a net or by a comb.

Feature image by Gustave-Henri Jossot (1866-1951)