Sunday, July 11, 2010

Giving a voice to those held hostage by past

Giving a voice to those held hostage by past
By Kevin Cullen, Globe Columnist | July 11, 2010

They had never met, the professor and the woman who worked in the laundry.

“I hope I’m not being too bold,’’ James Smith said the other day, handing her a bouquet.

“Not at all,’’ she said, breathing in the flowers. “They’re lovely.’’

When she was 14, her father put her on his bicycle and pedaled 25 miles to a convent in rural Ireland. He gave her to the nuns, and they put her to work in a laundry.

“We were slaves,’’ she said. “That’s what we were. Slaves.’’

They worked six days a week. They couldn’t speak. Once, she was accused of talking to another girl. She denied the charge, and, for her insolence, she was held down by two other girls while the Reverend Mother cut her hair off with scissors.

At 18, she was put on a train to Dublin, to work in a hospital. It took her a while to realize she was actually free, and she later moved to London, became a nurse, and tried to start over. But London wasn’t far enough away, so she went to Boston and worked at various hospitals in town.

She never got over what was done to her, the abandonment, the cruelty, the humiliations. She woke up tasting the grit of her teeth, which she ground in her sleep. She never married and always lived alone.

Two years ago, she struggled mightily to read a book written by Smith, a professor at Boston College. It was called “Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment.’’ It was about the Magdalenes, the young women deemed fallen, shunted away into laundries run by nuns, their labor enriching the religious orders that held them, their confinement acquiesced to by the government.

It was her story, and she couldn’t believe that anybody knew or cared.

She called the switchboard at BC and asked to be put through to professor Smith.

“Are you the man who wrote the Magdalene book?’’ she asked.

And in that moment, hearing a frail voice over the phone, Jim Smith’s academic exercise became a personal crusade. He and others in a group called Justice for Magdalenes have spent years trying to get an apology and compensation for the women who were forced into hard, unpaid labor.

But until that call, the women in the laundries were an abstraction. And until this week, the woman who called him was just a voice.

“I’m very pleased to meet you,’’ the woman who worked in the laundry said to the professor.

They were sitting in the Nashua living room of Imelda Murphy, who befriended the woman a few years ago. Murphy put together a farewell lunch, because the woman is moving to Michigan, to live in a home provided by a friend she worked with at one of the Boston hospitals.

She is 75 now, and does not want her name in the paper because many people don’t know her story and she wants to keep it that way.

Smith was just back from Ireland, pushing the Magdalene cause. He met with Cardinal Sean Brady, the head of the Catholic Church there.

“I told the cardinal about your situation,’’ Smith told the woman.

“What did the cardinal say?’’ she asked.

“He said there had to be a just solution for you and all the Magdalenes,’’ Smith said, “but . . . ’’

But every time Cardinal Brady suggested a way to help, some slick public relations person stepped in and said they couldn’t make commitments.

Smith told her that while he was in Dublin, a legislator got up in the Dail, Ireland’s parliament, and demanded to know what the government was going to do about the woman in Massachusetts who has suffered all these years without an apology or a dime. Kathleen Lynch, the legislator, refused to sit down until the Dail heard her out.

“She did that?’’ the woman asked.

“She did,’’ Jim Smith replied.

After all these years, the thought of someone in authority actually sticking up for her, actually demanding that her suffering be acknowledged, was bewildering.

“They’re hoping that in 10 years, we’ll all be under the sod and they can relax,’’ she said.

The woman grew quiet.

“I want you to know,’’ Jim Smith told her, “that I will not stop. We will not stop. There are people who will stay with this. We are not going away.’’

The woman smiled and nodded, and she knew that for one of the few times in her life someone was telling her a truth.

Later this year, Boston’s archbishop, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, will depart for Ireland, to advise his counterpart in Dublin how to rebuild an archdiocese after scandal.

The woman hopes that O’Malley will raise the case of the Madgalenes. There was a Magdalen laundry in the South End, like many things in Boston, an Irish import.

“I like Cardinal O’Malley,’’ she said. “He’s a holy man.’’

After lunch, we went to the back of Imelda Murphy’s garden and watched some ducklings splash in a small pool. The woman said she had to go, to pack.

For years, she has lived in a small basement apartment in Lowell, taking care of an elderly woman in exchange for room and board. But the lady was recently moved to a nursing home. The woman who worked in the laundry was looking at the street until her old friend offered a place halfway across the country.

She packed 47 boxes of books for the move.

She gave everything else away. Furniture. Everything.

“To Catholic Charities,’’ she said. “Some poor soul can use it.’’

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