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A Day at the Convent

On Tuesday 9th September a group of approximately 30 Probus members met at the bakery next to The Abbotsford Convent. Fortified against the strong winds with cups of tea and coffee, we followed Rema, our guide , into the Convent which was founded in 1863 by four Irish nuns from the Order of the Good Shepherd to assist women in need. By 1900 the Convent was the largest charitable institution in the Southern Hemisphere and there were over 1,000 women and children living behind its enclosed walls.

The Convent is located on part of the lands of the traditional Wurundjeri people and is about 15acres now ( it was once 27 acres)

The site was sold in 1975 and Sir Rupert Hamer recognized the significance of the site and with the help of the Whitlam federal government 5.5 million was contributed to its purchase. Various educational institutions were housed there including The School of Early Childhood Development and the Lincoln Institute, later becoming part of La Trobe University.

As seems normal these days, there were funding cuts to Universities and the upkeep of the buildings became impossible to maintain by an educational institution so once again, the Convent was on the market. Real estate developers were about to move in by 1997, destroying many of the buildings and converting others into apartments. Fortunatey, a group of 5 people formed the Abbotsford Convent Coalition and managed to launch a massive publicity campaign to save the Convent which, in 2004, was gifted to the public by the State Government of Victoria. Much restoration work commenced and is still in progress.

We were lucky to see the many restored areas like the Bishop's Parlour, including the unrestored Magdalen laundry areas which I am sure could tell a tale of woe from some of those hard working young girls who were housed in the complex.

One thing which struck me was the size of the grounds- much larger than you would expect from the front entrance. Apparently the original nuns were not too keen on the Australian hardwood used for buildings so they painstakingly painted knots and whorls on the wood to make it look more European. They also decorated many of the fireplaces with decorative and attractive pokerwork, a skill they must have learnt in Ireland originally. What patience they must have had!

After our tour round the Convent we went to look at the Chapel which was quite stunning with the stained glass windows and the Stations of the Cross. I took a sneaky picture of some our Probus members sitting in church , for posterity!

Most of us were ready for lunch after this so we made for the bakery again and had a good chat and rest, not to mention shelter from the increasingly wild and windy weather!

After lunch, by way of a contrast, we visited the HQ of radio 3MBS. The radio station is run entirely by volunteers and plays classical music most of the day and night. It is extremely well organized with exact play times and CD tracks scheduled for many months ahead . We were shown into the library and also into one of the broadcast rooms where live broadcasting was taking place ( we had to be very quiet for a couple of minutes!)

It is wonderful to see that the Convent is being so well used by local artists and musicians and how popular the various eating venues are, particularly with some of the young and trendy! Thank you Ken for organising the tour. It was well worthwhile.

Jane Johnson