Remembering the Magdalene Mothers: Prisoners of the Catholic Church

By Sarah E. Murphy 

Last Sunday, May 14, here in the United States, we celebrated Mother’s Day. As social media was flooded with posts in celebration of motherhood, all I could think about was Mary Teresa Collins, a woman with whom I recently connected on Facebook. 

Mary was born and grew up in Ireland, but she has never considered it home, for countless reasons, and now lives in London. Mary never had the luxury of knowing her mother. The most sacred and fundamental relationship between two human beings was stolen from them by the Roman Catholic Church and the Irish State.

Mary was born out of wedlock to members of the Irish Traveling community. Her mother, Angelina Collins, was from Mayo; her father, Patrick Ward, hailed from Galway. In the eyes of the Catholic Church, Angelina had committed one of the most egregious and unspeakable sins imaginable – sex out of wedlock – resulting in three daughters to serve as physical and perpetual reminders of her transgressions. Angelina was considered a “fallen woman.” She was also a Traveler, which sealed her fate for being targeted.

Angela was taken from her Traveling community, separated from her daughters, and sent to a county home. After escaping, she was punished with imprisonment in the St. Vincent Peacock Lane Magdalene Laundry, located in Cork.

Named for Mary Magdalene, one of the most infamous “fallen women” of Christianity, and operated by Roman Catholic orders, these asylums were located all over Ireland, purportedly as a place of repentance and salvation for girls and young women.

Mary Teresa Collins was mentally and physically abused by nuns at an industrial school near the laundry where her mother was imprisoned.

There Angelina, whose name was changed to “Angela,” would spend the next 27 years – the remainder of her life – as an unpaid slave laborer for the Catholic Church. She and her fellow inmates were subjected to severe physical and psychological abuse, torture, and sexual degradation at the hands of the nuns, in addition to inhumane working conditions. It was meant to be symbolic, and in keeping with the Catholic faith, shaming.

These “dirty” women were forced to spend six days a week, from morning til night, boiling and scrubbing human stains from soiled linen to remind them of their own “sins.” As they toiled in the laundries, they were not allowed to speak, to the nuns or to each other. They were there merely to repent and generate income.

Angela Collins during her 27-year captivity at St. Vincent Peacock Lane Magdalene Laundry.

They weren’t individuals. They were sinners, viewed as the dregs of society. To that end, their names were changed at the whim of the nuns.

The laundries and their slaves were an important cog in the wheel of the Roman Catholic empire, a brilliant business venture with a perpetually revolving door, buoyed by a never-ending supply and demand.

For not only did these innocent women slave away at free labor, but the babies born in the Magdalene asylums were quite literally taken out of their mothers’ arms to be sold to Irish and US Catholic families. This human trafficking enterprise was in operation all over Ireland until the remaining Magdalene Laundry, located in Dublin, closed in 1996. 

For the last decade of her life, Angela was denied a recommended hysterectomy, continuing to slave away in the laundry making money for the church, before eventually dying of ovarian cancer. In the eyes of the Catholic Church, this persecution was her “penance.” 

Angela is buried in a mass grave in St. Finbarr’s Cemetery in Cork with 72 other innocent, exploited women, many of whom were persecuted for “crimes” such as being sexually active or being the victim of assault. Angela was one of those women, for Mary was the product of rape.

This wasn’t centuries ago, in the long forgotten past; this was early 1960s Ireland. Angela’s life ended on January 27, 1988. She was 57. 

But the persecution didn’t end with Angela. That wasn’t enough for the Catholic Church. Angela’s “wayward ways,” were projected onto her daughter, Mary, and she also paid the ultimate price, from the time she was a child. Mary never had a family. She never experienced the milestones of growing up. She was taken from her mother at the age of seven, and her childhood and teen years were spent in industrial schools operated by Catholic nuns, where the only lessons she learned were hatred of her mother and self-hate, toxic seeds planted and thoughtfully cultivated by the nuns. 

The family of Angela Collins has asked for her remains to be exhumed from the mass grave but that request was denied.

I first learned of these horror chambers when I saw the 2002 film, “The Magdalene Sisters,” a fictionalized account of the laundries, based in the 1960s, in the movie theater. It was hard to fathom the horror to which countless women were subjected due to the patriarchy, hypocrisy, misogyny, and greed of organized religion. I was 30 at the time, and as I wept, I couldn’t help but see myself up on the screen. It was seven years after my abortion, which I obtained secretly in 1995, a few weeks before my college graduation. Those girls being vilified and tortured were no different than me. 

The unfathomable injustice of the Magdalene Laundries has always stayed with me, so it seemed like fate in recent years when I discovered Mary’s Facebook page, Justice 4 All Women & Children, promoting the non-profit organization she co-founded with her daughter, Laura Angela Collins, an author and human rights activist. Mary and Laura have been fighting for years seeking justice not only for Angela, but all Magdalene victims. Women, girls, and babies who suffered and died under the roof of the Roman Catholic Church.

I’ve been following and admiring Mary and Laura’s work since then, but I finally reached out to Mary earlier this spring, to see if she’d be open to an interview. As fate would have it, when we eventually made arrangements to speak on the phone, the day that worked for both of us just happened to be April 26, the 28th anniversary of my abortion, a Wednesday, the same day as 1995. If I had given in to the overwhelming shame of the Catholic Church when I was 23 and terrified, my life would have turned out very differently. I would have either given birth to the child of a heroin addict, doomed to a life under that black curtain, or I would have tried to harm myself. Either way, I wouldn’t have been able to pursue a career of writing and activism. Since telling my story in 2020, I’ve realized that what happened to me was part of my journey, and for some reason, it was meant to be. It’s why I’m so passionate about telling the stories of marginalized people, particularly those persecuted by the Catholic Church, to help them speak their truth. 

All Mary wants is justice from the Church and State, specifically, her mother’s remains, and an apology, both of which she and her family have been denied. After a lifetime of torture and degradation, Angela is owed, at the very least, a proper resting place where her daughter, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren can pay their respects privately, rather than making a pilgrimage to a mass grave. 

I’m honored that Mary has entrusted me with her memories, but more importantly, I’m grateful to call her a friend. This is just the beginning in a series featuring Angela’s story, Mary’s story, Laura’s story, and the generational trauma of Laura’s brothers, Craig and Anthony. Their suffering, and Angela’s life, will not be in vain. 

Mary Teresa Collins and her daughter, Laura Angela Collins, founders of Justice 4 All Women & Children.

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