Few Clean Hands in These Laundries

By Leanne Larmondin
Anglican Journal [Canada]
Downloaded September 2, 2003

A few years ago, a so-called “secondary virginity” campaign was making the rounds in high schools and on university campuses. One of the campaign’s particularly perverse rituals involved the symbolic reclaiming of one’s virginity by pouring peroxide or bleach over a red food colouring stain on a white sheet, thereby making oneself a “born-again virgin.”

That symbolism of washing one’s transgressions down the drain was in part the basis of the laundries run in Roman Catholic Ireland by the Sisters of Mercy, institutions which operated late into the 20th century.

Originally begun in 1767 as a refuge for prostitutes, the first so-called Magdalene asylum eventually morphed into an institutional system for teenage girls and women who were considered “fallen women.” More than 30,000 women were incarcerated in the laundries for such sins as having children out of wedlock, promiscuity or simply being orphaned or “simple-minded.” Unlike prisons, where inmates had the hope of being released, residents of the laundries often lived out their lives in servitude to the church.

The laundries have been brought to the screen in the fictionalized film The Magdalene Sisters. The film, released in Europe last September to the wide condemnation of the Vatican and the United States-based Catholic League as anti-Catholic, follows four years in the lives of three young inmates at the laundries in the 1960s.


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