Early Days in Chadstone

Convent of the Good Shepherd
Convent of the Good Shepherd

Sofitel’s palatial Chadstone Hotel opening in November, resides on land formerly held by the Convent of the Good Shepherd (1883-1981) which stood on 55 acres of paddocks, complete with grazing cattle.

Although in 1954 Kenneth Myer, of the Myer Emporium, bought 86 acres in Burwood East for a shopping centre, the plan was dropped in favour of the south-eastern suburbs. As the convent’s green fields were surrounded by a middle class suburbia catchment with a propensity for family shopping, Myer purchased 30 acres of their land in 1958. In 1960, at a cost of £6 million, Chadstone Shopping Centre opened: Melbourne’s first self-contained regional shopping centre. It is the Southern hemisphere’s largest shopping centre.

One Hundred Years of the Convent of the Good Shepherd, Oakleigh (1883-1981)

The Argus newspaper of 4 March 1882 advised that as Abbotsford’s Convent of the Good Shepherd was at capacity, girls in the reformatory section were to be relocated. “This is the only Catholic reformatory in the colony, and the plan adopted by the nuns is to isolate for a time and place under religious treatment the girls placed under their charge, and to train them for farm servants, it being considered better to send them to situations in the country than to the scenes of their former careers.”

The social outcasts were despatched to a reformatory opened in 1883 in Oakleigh (now Chadstone); 25 years later in the Catholic newspaper Advocate headed ‘A Noble Charitable Institution’ which was “conducted with pre-eminent success by those self-sacrificing and noble ladies, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. They seem to have strange power, these veiled messengers of God. They light up hope in the downtrodden, and cheer the hearts of those who have fallen on life’s rough highways.” …

“Perhaps a young girl has already got off the track and coming under the benign and maternal influence of these truly ‘ministering angels’, is placed in the way of earning an honest living and, it may be, of rearing a family … [although] the girls are engaged for the greater part of the day in laundry work, dairying, etc., the nuns take care to cultivate a taste for reading and self-improvement … one could not help congratulating the nuns on the wonderful order and discipline … Little wonder is it that the largest houses are customers of the institution, as good value is there obtained.”

In February 1911, another visit to the convent was reported in Advocate; the text was glowing – although as much time was spent with the farm animals, little time was left to tour inside the building described as “greytowered, stately-looking as a convent of medieval times”.

“To the right of the noble pile of buildings is the ‘farm’, considered by experts the best-appointed and most up-todate in the Commonwealth; and here the girls are trained to do every duty possible to a woman for the success and prosperity of farm life. “In the ‘smocking-room’ (all rooms are high-roofed, well-ventilated, and bright, and everything appertaining to them ‘shines like a new pin’), children’s dresses for the larger drapery emporiums are daily ‘turned out’ as perfect as fingers can make this popular stitching for juveniles; and, in another sewing-room, the habits of the Sisters themselves are also cleverly and daintily stitched. The teaching (a Sister presides over every department), is thorough; there is no ‘slumming over’ of anything; and the girls appear to take a live interest in their work.

“In the ironing-room, gas-irons are moving rapidly— long tables, many girls of all ages, yet each with ample space for her work. There’s as much attention paid to some little city missie’s doll’s clothes (beautiful of their kind, and very fashionable, too) as to the white linens of the adult; and the workers look pleased when one is compelled to voice one’s admiration at their success.”

The young laundry workers would have wondered what life ‘on the outside’ was like for the girl whose parents sent them doll’s clothing to be laundered! There was an unreported, darker, side to this convent. An article in The Age, 27 April 2003, titled A local spin on the laundries of shame recounted the story of Jeanette Barnacle. By far the youngest held at the Good Shepherd, at age 10, in July 1950, Jeanette spent more than four years locked in the laundry, ironing linen.

“They had to build a stool for me to stand on so I could reach the tables. There was a huge room with long tables and there were pipes going down with rubber hoses. It was a gas iron.” Toil at the gas iron was interrupted at midday “to do stations of the cross and then bread and dripping and back to work”.

She remembered the bells that woke the women for prayers at 6am, the rough calico underwear, lumpy porridge for breakfast and an institution where women were known not by name but by number – hers was 52. “You weren’t allowed to look up or speak to anyone. When the government came out you weren’t allowed to tell them anything or you’d get belted.” Harsh treatment was routine. “They used to belt you with wet towels.” The convent was demolished in 1986.