Respecting and acknowledging the Convent’s past
Today a beloved urban retreat for inner-Melbourne, and home to more than 100 arts and creative practitioners, Abbotsford Convent was once one of the largest Catholic complexes in Australia, and by 1901 was the largest charitable institution operating in the southern hemisphere.
Founded by The Sisters of the Good Shepherd in 1863, Abbotsford Convent operated for more than 100 years through the social traumas caused by the gold rush boom and bust, the Great Depression and two world wars. Over the period of a century, thousands of girls and women were placed in care at the Convent, with many residing in the Convent’s Sacred Heart building, and labouring in the onsite Magdalen Laundry.
While the Convent had a positive impact for some women—many of whom were destitute and had nowhere else to go—and provided critically needed shelter, food and education in the absence of state care, the Convent was also a place of hardship and ordeal for some of the women, as was often the experience of those in institutionalised care.
The precinct was inscribed on the National Heritage List in August 2017, recognised for demonstrating Australia’s social and welfare history through the lens of a religious and charitable institution. The Convent’s place on the National Heritage List will help protect the site’s future for generations to come, while honouring those who were affected by its past. The Convent’s Laundry and asylum buildings are an important physical record for those Australians and their families known as the Forgotten Australians. The harm of institutionalisation and the trauma experienced by many residents is acknowledged as part of the Convent’s heritage.
Sharing our history
Today, Abbotsford Convent is owned and operated by the Abbotsford Convent Foundation (ACF). The ACF is not affiliated with Good Shepherd or any other religious organisation. The ACF acknowledges the history and stories of the women and girls who worked and resided at the Convent during its time as a working monastic site, from 1863 – 1974. Some women have chosen to share stories of their time at Sacred Heart with the ACF, and we hope that through a process of sharing stories and creating new stories at the Convent, a culture of healing is created, while never forgetting the Convent’s past and the impact it had for some. There are equally many women who do not wish to, or are unable to, share or discuss their experiences, and the ACF also acknowledges these women.
The Convent shares this period of its history through its weekly social history tours, as well as self-guided audio tour, which includes an oral history recording from Trish, a former resident who also worked in the onsite Magdalen Laundry.
Preserving our site
The ACF also acknowledges the tireless work of the many local community members who campaigned to save the Convent from commercial development in the late 1990s, and who therefore played a critical role in preserving this unique historical site.
After the Good Shepherd Sisters sold the Convent in 1975, and following the site’s days as a campus of Latrobe University, in 1997 a property developer put forward a residential plan for the Abbotsford Convent site. This plan included 289 apartments, a 6-story building overlooking the Collingwood Children’s Farm, and a chip-and-putt golf course. Through one of the longest and most successful community campaigns of its type in Australia—led by the Abbotsford Convent Coalition—more than 6,000 objection letters, $3 million in pledges and countless volunteer hours helped save the Convent site and its heritage assets from the proposed development.
The site was gifted to the community in 2001, and has been owned and managed by the Abbotsford Convent Foundation on behalf of the community since 2004. Since then, the ACF and our partners have been progressively restoring and conserving the Convent’s buildings and heritage landscape, and sharing the site’s social history. Major milestones include the recent restorations of Sacred Heart and the Magdalen Laundry (Stage 1), completed in 2018-19, and our annual appeals supporting conservation works and sustainability initiatives across the precinct.
The Abbotsford Mysteries podcast
The Abbotsford Mysteries is a podcast, featuring a series of songs based on ex-Abbotsford Convent resident, Patricia Sykes’ evocative book of poetry of the same name. It is an intensely intimate and evocative exploration, capturing a sense of what life was like for the thousands of girls and women inhabiting Abbotsford Convent during its period as a monastic site between 1863 – 1975.