From 1863 until 1975, the Good Shepherd Sisters operated a Magdalen Asylum at Abbotsford. The building, known as Sacred Heart or ‘the home’, was enclosed by a courtyard that was not visible beyond the surrounding large gates. Most of Sacred Heart has been unoccupied since the 1970s.
The ground floor has many rooms associated with the adjoining Magdalen Laundry. An expansive and connected dormitory, interspersed with many bathrooms, took up the entire first floor and could accommodate up to 400 women. The second floor housed ‘the granary’, where sewing and mending damaged laundry happened. The south-east corner contained the former infirmary (hospital). It had a dormitory upstairs, treatment rooms downstairs and a kitchen at its southern end. At the southern end of the Sacred Heart courtyard was the Oratory, which was restored in 2013. Today the remarkable space is used to present music, theatre, installations, projections and immersive experiences.
Many young women spent periods of their adolescence in Sacred Heart due to family circumstances, poverty or for acting outside social norms or the law. On admission to Sacred Heart the women (called ‘girls’ regardless of their age) were given new names (of saints) and uniforms. The Sacred Heart girls were subject to regimented schedules and hard work. They rose around 5am, went to Mass, had breakfast, and started their working day, which was punctuated with meals and more church services. They retired to bed around 7pm. They were not permitted to leave Sacred Heart, other than to attend church or to go on supervised walks. In later years, they were allowed visits from their families but all of their activities were supervised.
Whilst today the Convent is a not for profit arts and cultural precinct with no religious affiliations, we acknowledge the site’s past as a working monastic site, and honour the women and girls who were impacted by this, particularly those who resided in Sacred Heart up until the mid-1970s, often in oppressive and difficult conditions.
Following years of being out-of-use due to dilapidation, in March 2018 the Sacred Heart building re-opened following a significant restoration project made possible with a challenge grant of $2.681 million from the Australian Government’s National Stronger Regions Fund, which matched an extremely generous donation of $2 million from the Dara Foundation, along with funds raised by the ACF over the past decade.
Sacred Heart now offers fit-for-use studios, showrooms, offices and retail spaces, along with two new venue hire rooms, contributing to the sustainability and growth of the Convent long-term.