Anthony Lee, Philomena's son, with
one of the nuns at Sean Ross Abbey
I am going to take a short break from our history of the Church of England even though we probably have only two more postings on the reign of Queen Mary and the Catholic Restoration, to bring up several contemporary issues.
A few weeks ago a horrifying news release appeared regarding a home for unwed mothers in Tuam, Ireland, where the Bons Secours Sisters allegedly had buried almost 800 infants in a disused septic tank before the home was closed in 1961. Originally the story claimed that children in the home died on the average of four a week from a variety of causes, among them neglect and malnutrition, as well as whooping cough, influenza, tuberculosis and convulsions. As it turned out when a number of Catholic journalists—including Father James Martin of America Magazine—pursued the story, the death records showed a loss of 22 children a year over the time period which the institution was opened from 1925 until 1961. While this number still seems extraordinarily high, the extreme poverty of Ireland in those years and the high infant mortality rate throughout the country must be remembered. Local historian, Catherine Corless, who had uncovered the story and diligently searched the records, denied that she claimed that the children had been buried in the septic tank, claiming that the tank held perhaps 20 skeletons, but rather that they were buried in unmarked graves on the property.
Several films in the last few years have brought up the plight of unmarried mothers in 20th century Ireland. The Magdalene Sisters (2002) tells stories of the incredible humiliation and pain inflicted on the inmates in one such home. Though fictional, the story is not an exaggeration of the abuse to which these young women were subjected by nuns and clergy. The stories also reveal how parents turned on their daughters when the daughters became pregnant out of wedlock, disowning them and even savagely beating them. Philomena (2013), staring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, is the substantially true story of Philomena Lee, a woman sent in 1951 to Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, a home run by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts. Philomena’s son, Anthony, is taken from her and given for adoption to an American family. Despite both Philomena’s search for her son, and the son’s search for his mother, the nuns—while cordial—stonewall mother and son so that they never meet. The son dies of AIDS before his mother can find him. In one particularly dramatic scene—and this scene is fictional but telling none the less—an aged nun proudly declares that she has kept her vow of chastity for seventy-plus years and this puts her above the judgment of Philomena and the journalist assisting her in the search for not having revealed the whereabouts of the mother to the son who was searching for her.
It was not only the Catholics who ran these homes for unwed mothers. The Evangelical wing of the Church of Ireland also ran a home for “fallen women” called Bethany House and located in Blackhall Place, Dublin. 222 children died at Bethany House between 1922 and 1949, an average of a child every six weeks. Of course Dublin was a major city with better access to health care than rural Tuam, but we see the problem of inadequate care pervaded the culture.
What was an even bigger problem pervading the culture was the disdain for unmarried women who became pregnant. There was a harsh and judgmental approach to women at a time they most needed help, healing, and compassion. It was an ugly Catholicism that instead inflicted pain and humiliation on them in their time of need.
There is a tendency among some to glorify the Catholicism of the early 20th century with its full seminaries and convents, with its great building projects of cathedral-like churches, with its elaborate ceremonies and refined music. In fact, that Church was often the whitened sepulcher Christ spoke of in the Gospels: polished and elegant on the outside, but inside fill with the bones of the dead. There were many good habited nuns and there were many miserable and unhappy bitches in wimples. There were many fine priests: and there were many drunks and abusers with roman collars. There were many pious communicants and there were many hypocrites who marched up the aisle to kneel at the rails before going home and getting on the telephone to rip reputations left and right. Today we have—in most places—a kinder, gentler Catholicism. I think putting the Mass into our daily language has given us all a deeper exposure to the words of Jesus in the Gospels. Some who are unhappy that this old fashioned rigid “faith” has passed refer to the Church today as “The Church of Nice.” They mean it disparagingly, but I think Christ must look on the Church and breathe a sign of relief that his words seem finally to be sinking in.