Built in 1901, the Sisters’ Convent is located on what was once Abbotsford House, a former gentleman’s farmlet that was the Sisters’ first refuge. The Convent building was where most of the Sisters, novices (nuns-in-training) and postulants (women commencing life as nuns) lived. Abbotsford was the Provincial House: the headquarters of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in the Asia-Pacific region and the primary training centre.
Funding for the Convent building came from a raffle held at the Royal Exhibition Building, with prizes donated by Catholic families and businesses. The raffle raised over $5 million in today’s dollar equivalent. Designed by Reed, Smart & Tappin (later Bates Smart), it was to feature a northern cloister but the plan was abandoned due to insufficient funds. Instead, the tempietto (the domed ornamental structure) was erected and a fernery planted, with both still in place today.
At its peak, the Convent housed up to 150 Sisters. The building included single bedrooms known as ‘cells’, dormitories for novices and postulants, a library, community rooms, a refectory, parlours, a granary (also called ‘the pantries’) and a basement, which opens to the gardens and is now c3 Contemporary Art Space. The first floor of the western wing was an infirmary for the Sisters and it connected to the Good Shepherd Chapel. The western corridor of the building, known as ‘Mural Hall’, has a large painting of Calvary, the site of Christ’s crucifixion. The mural featured a large wooden cross, which is now in the Good Shepherd Chapel.
Today, the Convent building houses artist studios, wellbeing spaces, Cam’s Kiosk, creative businesses and St Heliers Street Gallery.
This is the most ornate and decorative room in the entire precinct. Located next to the original formal entry doorway into the Convent building, the Bishop’s Parlour was where the Mother Superior received her VIP guests and the women who were entering the Order. A Sister, who joined the Good Shepherd Order in 1952, vividly recalls the rich carpet and formal curtains that are still in situ today. Entry to the Bishop’s Parlour was monitored by the Sister who looked after the main gate at the Clarke Street entry. A long timber hallway ran from here to the building and anyone seeking entry was first ‘approved’ by the Sister on duty. A frequent visitor to the Bishop’s Parlour was Archbishop Mannix who often stopped in en route between his home at Raheen and the city.
The lavishly decorated fire places in the Bishop’s Parlour and in the foyer area are rendered in an art form known as pokerwork. Three of the Good Shepherd’s Sisters were accomplished in the art form and one of them based at Abbotsford lovingly adorned the two mantles in this area with this intricate decorative art style. The staircase behind the Bishop’s Parlour is highly decorated and was referred to as the ‘Grand Staircase’ by the Sisters. The stained glass in the foyer area is also very intricate – indicating the importance of this area.
Provincial Superior’s Office
This room was the office of the Provincial Superior of the Order of the Good Shepherd in Australiasia. The large Liquid Amber tree in the adjacent courtyard was planted in the mid 1950s to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Prior to the planting of the Liquid Amber, the courtyard was graced by a giant palm tree, which complimented the Palm Garden that still exists to the left.
In the days of the Convent, the priest who said Mass at the nearby Chapel would have breakfast served to him in here afterwards. The table in this room was constructed by young people working on an Odyssey House project. The jarrah timber that the table is constructed from was taken from the floor of the original Magdalen Laundries. When the Abbotsford Convent Foundation took possession of the site in 2004, unfortunately, the Laundries had fallen into a bad state of disrepair and the once majestic and tough jarrah floorboards were rotten and dangerous. Odyssey House assisted in providing young people to remove the floorboards and it was decided to create a permanent reminder of this heritage with the creation of the large table that now graces the Mother Superior’s ex-office space.
Community and Linen rooms
Overlooking the heritage gardens, the Sisters’ Community Room was a space where they congregated at the end of each long day. The furniture in the Community Room was sparse and the atmosphere was quiet and reserved. The timber used for the window frames and doors is unusual in that it has been hand stained to take on the appearance of wood grain. The room next door was originally the Linen Room, where two Sisters worked full time to meet the demand for linen and toiletries that were needed by the hundreds of residents across the site. The Sisters’ library was in the room next door to the Linen Room. When Latrobe University managed the site in the late 1970s and beyond, both spaces were used as a library.
This room was very special to the Sisters as it was the space where they received their visitors on a monthly basis. Within this large airy room, family and friends sipped tea and ate the thinly sliced bread and butter that the Good Shepherd Sisters were famous for providing. The Sisters did not eat or drink in the presence of their visitors. The frieze that surrounds the entire ceiling area was painted by the father of Sister Monica. No other space on site has a frieze; so this one is indeed unique. Only the Sisters used the two large doors that open onto the courtyard because only members of the Good Shepherd Order were allowed to walk the exterior cloisters – guests would have entered through the front door of the Convent building.
The Annexe was constructed in 1902 as a key aspect of the new Convent building. The large number of kitchens and food preparation areas within the Annexe allowed the Sisters to feed the entire site; which at its peak, housed up to 1,000 people. At this time in Victoria, there was no other kitchen operating at this scale. The main baking kitchens contained two enormous wood fired ovens that supplied bread and cakes for the Sisters, the girls and visitors. The Annexe now houses three food and beverage outlets. After restoration works in 2011, the century-old wood fired ovens are still in regular use.