Jesus Opens a Laundry

Mary MagdaleneI’m always interested in how Christians perceive the work of Jesus. When Mary Magdalene was sick, Jesus cured her and she stuck by him throughout the Passion and beyond. But Christians are more likely to send their problems away. Out of sight, out of mind. Who needs that compassion nonsense?

In the late 18th century, institutions to reform “fallen women” started popping up throughout Europe and America. They were called Magdalene Laundries. As with penitentiaries, they started as a way of helping the morally wanting but quickly became just a way of punishing them. Think: forced labor insane asylum.

Not surprisingly, the government colluded to funnel women into the institutions. The Irish government performed an 18 month of study on the issue. The report was released last week, “Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to Establish the Facts of State Involvement with the Magdalen Laundries.” It found, “Some 10,000 women and girls entered Magdalene laundries since 1922 with more than a quarter of referrals made or facilitated by the State.”

You might have noticed that 1922 was not that long ago. I think we are all used to this sort of thing in the distant past. Witchcraft, for example, can best be described as the crime of being a bit odd. In the case of the Magdalene Laundries, girls were often sent because they were too flirtatious or just too attractive. And this went on for a long time. The last Magdalene Laundry was closed only in 1996.

According to historian Frances Finnegan in Do Penance or Perish, these asylums ended because of changing attitudes towards sex. But just as important was that they ceased to be profitable after the invention of the washing machine. Upwards of 1000 women died in the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland—life imprisonment for being pretty.

Justice for Magdalenes is an advocacy group for survivors of the Laundries. The government has now apologized for its part in this unjust system. No word from the church.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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