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Harsh convent childhood 'left a scar on my life'

‘‘I come across all right, but I often feel like I’m still living within those walls.’’

So says Maree Holt, who was placed into the care of the nuns at Abbotsford Convent in 1959, when she was three years old. And that was where she lived for 12 years - most of her childhood.

Today, Ms Holt, is a kind, gentle woman but says beneath her outward appearance, feelings of anger and hurt from those days, and the lifelong shame of being somehow abnormal, ''an odd bod'', bubble below the surface.

‘‘It’s left a scar on my life, being brought up in an institution; it didn’t give me many skills for the outside world.’’

Many users of the Convent in 2018 - it's now an arts and cafe hub - have little knowledge of its past as a refuge but for others a harsh or abusive workhouse for orphans, people from broken homes and the homeless.

Ms Holt's mother was mentally ill and lived in an an asylum. Her father had to work, but she says she's lucky because he did visit; other Convent kids had no family.


Ms Holt remembers, from age seven, being put to work washing dishes, folding laundry, making beds, and polishing floors.

There wasn’t much affection, and if you didn’t clean the dorm to hospital standard, or were caught playing a practical joke, you were caned with a feather duster handle, or had to go to daily 7am mass.

Today, Ms Holt is proud of having made her own way in life and brought up her own two sons.

She now regards the friends she made at the Convent as family. With them, she doesn’t feel she has to lie about her past, just to make it seem more normal.

She reunited with many of them on Sunday for the unveiling of a memorial to honour tens of thousands of women and children who lived in homes run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, (including Abbotsford), across Australia from 1863 to the 1980s.

The memorial, a steel cylinder sitting in a garden outside the Convent’s bluestone chapel, is filled with fragments of zinc to represent residents’ diverse stories.

It is engraved with words like fear, anger, ashamed, sanctuary, friendship, forgotten and dreamers. Ms Holt, who is on the committee that planned the memorial, relates to the latter: she used to sit in the Convent school and dream her mother was Doris Day.

She says the memorial is ‘‘supposed to be a healing thing’’ but more important is that Good Shepherd, now a welfare organisation, helps victims to move forward and looks after them.

Ms Holt, who is on the committee of the Alliance for Forgotten Australians seeking redress for victims of institutional abuse, said she doesn’t want monetary compensation for her time at the convent, but says if others need it, they should get it.