Washington, May 1, 2013 – Bonnie Armijo awoke from the warm embrace of a dream and grimaced as she realized she was back in her bed on the third floor of St. Anne’s Institute in Albany, New York.
St. Anne’s was a Magdalene asylum for girls who had been labeled by either the courts or their families as having “fallen” from moral virtue.
Established by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages to provide a place where reformed prostitutes would cleanse their sins in preparation for marriage, these institutions proliferated across Europe into Ireland, Scotland and across the ocean to Australia, Canada and the United States. They took a dark turn during the industrial revolution in the 1800’s and became workhouses where girls as young as fourteen worked in laundries and were subject to a cruel and abusive form of penance to “restore their virtue.”
As a young girl of fifteen, the Irish singer Sinead O’Connor spent eighteen months in a Magdalene Laundry. Her Saturday Night Live appearance that sparked huge controversy when she ripped up a picture of the Pope was motivated by the sexual and physical abuse she had suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church.
Various religious orders ran the Magdalene Asylums, and St. Anne’s was one of many asylums operated by Sisters from the Order of the Good Shepherd in the United States.
The few who witnessed the institutions saw prisons with towering stone walls topped with barbed wire, where once inside all hope was stolen from the very depths of your soul.
Back from her dream, Bonnie stirred beneath the shallow blankets that seemed only to invite the cold rather than banish it. Her eyes struggled to focus in the darkness as she rubbed her arms trying to keep warm. The large open room she was in was populated with iron-framed beds and worn cotton sheets, filled with other young girls who soundly slept in the serenity of the darkness.
Bonnie could feel the cool breeze of an early morning wind as her long dark hair danced in its grasp, and December 1966 arrived with a grand entrance across the landscape of the city of Albany.
As she looked around, Bonnie saw a silhouette bathed in the moonlight, and as she looked closer, she made out the figure of a young girl standing with her feet perched upon the windowsill on the precipice of a three story drop, poised to jump.
Bonnie walked slowly toward the window, still unsure whether her dream had ended or if it had morphed into a bottomless nightmare. As she drew closer she recognized the girl standing on the edge of her own demise as someone she had nicknamed “Daffy” referring to the Walt Disney character Daffy Duck. The two had made the journey from the Children and Family Shelter in Long Island to St. Anne’s Institute.
Bonnie cried out, “Daffy don’t do it!” just as her friend began to throw herself into a descent from her third story perch. Bonnie reacted without thinking and grbbed Daffy’s nightgown, pulling her back into the room and on top of her.
Suddenly the atmosphere of the room exploded as the ‘Solidarity Sisters” rushed in to grab “Daffy,” pushing Bonnie aside. The Solidarity Sisters were young girls who believed their sins to be so great they handed their lives over to the Order of the Good Shepherd. Never able to become nuns, they instead became the “enforcers” of the Mother Superior, carrying out punishments that were handed down for violations of an ever-changing rulebook.
The Solidarity Sisters grabbed “Daffy” and began handling her so roughly that one of her teeth was knocked out and blood spread across the white tile floors like a river of fear. The nun in charge of the night shift at St. Anne’s rushed in, awakened from her deep sleep and not wearing the distinctive veil of the order.
The nun began barking orders to the Solidarity Sisters, “Grab her feet!” and then turned to Bonnie “You grab her arms and all of you follow me!” The nun removed a set of large keys hooked together on an enormous iron ring as she headed for the dark stairwell leading to the basement.
At the bottom of the stairs, Bonnie found cells with hard wooden doors with small windows that were closed tightly separating the occupants not only from the world but also from all sense of hope.
‘Daffy” was dropped onto the cold stone floor by the Solidarity Sisters. As Bonnie was pulled from the room the nun slammed the door and inserted the iron key into the lock, and as it turned, it swept away the last memory of Daffy, as she was never seen again.
Bonnie stood stunned as her ears filled with the rising sound of screaming that seemed to come from all around her. It was then that she realized that she had not descended into a basement but into hell where the tortured souls of young girls writhed in agony in a pocket of suffering as the outside world marked time, ignorant of the suffering a stone’s throw away.
Back in her bed, Bonnie sobbed. It seemed only a short time ago that Bonnie was a schoolgirl and life had not yet shown its darker side.
Bonnie’s father was a Sergeant in the Air Force and a full-blooded Navajo, and she had lived the early years of her life traveling from one military base to another. Then her mother and father separated and Bonnie returned with her mother to live with her strict Irish Catholic family in Long Island, New York.
It was during this time that her life began to change for the worse. At the age of nine a friend’s older brother molested Bonnie, and her efforts to speak out about this were dismissed as an overactive imagination. In 1965 at the age of fourteen, Bonnie was kidnapped by a security guard, thrown into his car and driven to his house. Held against her will, Bonnie fought with all of her strength and pushed him off the bed.
Finally free of her attacker Bonnie fled back to her home, but the scars of her abuse at the age of nine made her a hostage of silence.
In an attempt to speak out about the trauma, Bonnie wrote of her experience in a letter to one of her classmates. Bonnie was then called into the principal’s office and admonished her for lying. She was then expelled.
Bonnie fought depression and thoughts of suicide as her mother remained unsympathetic. Bonnie ran away after hearing a conversation between her mother and her aunt, but police soon found her and took her to the children and family shelter in Long Island.
The next morning, Bonnie appeared before a judge. She was confident that once she told her story, the judge would release her and jail her abuser. Instead, the judge sentenced Bonnie to St. Anne’s Institute until her graduation, which was several years away. Her crime was listed as being incorrigible.
As Bonnie and the three girls handcuffed with her approached the prison that would steal every waking moment of their happiness for the next two and half years, Bonnie felt her heart sink to its lowest depths. Stone walls towered before them topped with barbed wire, and the entrance to this hell was framed by an impenetrable wrought iron gate. The gate swung slowly open, as its motion seemed to rob time away from the four frightened girls. As the van pulled into the ancient courtyard it came to an abrupt stop and the four were led toward the entrance to their new prison. What loomed before them could only be described as an ominous and dark castle, its brick structure cemented together with the silent cries of young girls, desperate and hopeless, trapped in the grip of evil.
Once inside, the girls were greeted by the nun charged with processing new “inmates” as the girls who were sent to St. Anne’s were called. She coldly told the girls they would refer to all the Sisters of the Good Shepherd there as “Mother.” Talking was not allowed unless permission was given. The girls were allowed access to books but only on a limited basis during the basic classes offered.
In the dormitories the girls were not allowed to talk or read and were forced to sit with their hands in their laps. Smoking was allowed and many girls adopted this habit, as it was the only chance for limited conversation without supervision.
As the nun finished her orientation speech, Bonnie and the other girls were led through the dark and damp hallways of the evil castle and into a room. It was here that they were subjected to a rough medical exam that included a full cavity search.
In the dormitory where inmate’s awaited assignment to their “unit”, Bonnie was indoctrinated to the vacuum of compassion that would permeate her stay.
The girls were forced perform cruel forms of penance to atone for their “sins,” and on many occasions were made to kneel and place their hands in front of them with their fingers spread facing inwards. The girls were then made to place their knees on top of their fingers and raise their buttocks as high in the air as possible.
They were forced to scrub uneven brick floors until their knees bled. Sexual attacks could not be avoided by many of the girls.
Bonnie was frequently stricken by asthma attacks but not allowed an inhaler. Girls who tried to help her during these life threatening episodes were told to “leave her alone because she was just trying to get attention,” and were punished for extending a hand to help.
Bonnie also experienced severe physical abuse at the hands of both the Solidarity Sisters and the Sisters themselves. She remembers being struck on the back of the head so hard by one of the sisters that her vision was blurred for days.
Bonnie’s days at St. Anne’s Institute were an unrelenting wave of despair and humiliation. Visitations were limited by the Sisters, and Bonnie had only rare visits from her family totaling three times in the two and a half years she was imprisoned at Anne’s Institute.
Lifelong friendships are often forged within the depths of a struggle against the tide of evil that seeks to consume your soul and banish your self-esteem to oblivion. For Bonnie Armijo that lifelong friend has been with Diana O’Hara and the two have shared the tears and the laughter of true friendship over the years, but they continue to be haunted by the memories that are the ghosts of St. Anne’s
These ghosts follow them to this day and the memories of the abuse they suffered flavors their life with a desperate sense that even though decades have passed, there is a part of them that remains trapped in that prison of stone walls and barbed wire hearts where their innocence was stolen as young girls.
The struggle to free that part of these victims is one that has become one I have become committed to being a part of. Bonnie Armijo continues to fight for an acknowledgement of what happened to her as she struggles with Multiple Sclerosis and is a passionate and committed advocate to finding a cure for this disease.
If you want to learn more about the fight for justice for the survivors of the American Magdalene Laundries you can join the cause on Facebook at American Victims of Magdalenes and Good Shepherd, and Survivors of Good Shepherd/Magdalene Laundries in North America and on Google +: Survivors of Magdalene/Good Shepherd Laundries.
To understand the Magdalene/Good Shepherd Laundries and the suffering that took place there, it is important to see through the eyes of a survivor. Director Peter Mullan’s 2002 film, “The Magdalene Sisters.” Many survivors say he captures the experience so well that they cannot watch without reliving their own worst nightmare. Please watch and think of these young girls who have been sentenced to a lifetime of pain and suffering.