MAUREEN McCarthy has always been passionate about young women’s stories – her novel Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life is a perfect example of that preoccupation. But her latest novel, The Convent, is particularly heartfelt.
One of the many writers to be attending the forthcoming Bendigo Writers Festival, Ms McCarthy came from a large Catholic family of six brothers and four daughters.
“While we grew up in country Victoria near Yea, there was always talk at the table about nuns, feast days and the convent,” she said.
The convent was the Convent of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd at Abbotsford, which today hosts the Collingwood Animal Farm as well as artists, galleries and cafes.
But for Ms McCarthy’s family the convent had a strong significance.
“My mother, Edna, was made a ward of the state and brought up in the orphanage of the convent from the age of three to 15,” Ms McCarthy said.
“Her mother, Sadie, was forbidden to see her but her father used to visit her from time to time.
“At one stage my grandfather took Edna to live with him and his two sisters in Melbourne but his sisters rejected her and she had to return to the convent.
“Mum didn’t talk about her time in the orphanage a great deal, she was in a sense loyal to the nuns, but she did tell one story which I think says a lot.
“As a little girl she would collect stones and place the stones around herself in a circle. She said the stones were her little children. So there she was in the middle of a family she created for herself.”
Ms McCarthy’s family’s connection to convents didn’t end with her mother.
Ms McCarthy and her sisters attended the Star of the Sea convent as boarders and one of Ms McCarthy’s sisters joined the Presentation nuns there.
“When my father visited her he always asked her to come home but she never wanted to,” Ms McCarthy said.
“After Vatican 2 in 1963 she left the convent along with a lot of other women but up until then she said she loved the life there.
“There are a lot of harrowing stories to come out of the Abbotsford convent. Many girls who had babies were forbidden to talk about the past and had to work in the laundry. The conditions were very harsh but times were hard then on the outside as well.
“On the other hand many nuns were intelligent women who had a profound influence on girls, giving them invaluable educations.
“They often had very strong personalities. The nuns cared for the poorest of the poor – destitute women and their children – at a time when nobody else cared.
“This book is very close to me, it feels better than any other book I’ve done. It is ultimately inspired by my mother’s story and her mother, Sadie.
“Sadie often came back to the convent to try and see her little girl and cruelly she was always sent away.”n The Convent will be published by Allen & Unwin this October. The full program for the Bendigo Writers Festival, August 11-12, is available at www.bendigowritersfestival.com
The Convent will be published by Allen & Unwin this October. The full program for the Bendigo Writers Festival, August 11-12, is available at www.bendigowritersfestival.com