Lost lives reclaimed

Dianne Dempsey | Bendigo Weekly | 15-Sep-2017

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Earlier this year Len Williams took a walk to a forgotten grave site at Remembrance Park Central Victoria. 

It was 5pm and cold, the same time of day when the first woman from St Aidan’s was buried there by the Good Shepherd Sisters. 

“She was Catherine Darcy, 26 years old, and she was interred there 110 years ago, in 1907,” Mr Williams said.

“I wanted to feel what the atmosphere must have been like. Poor kid, I thought. Why bury her at the end of the day? Maybe that was the only time available? Were there many people there with her at the end?”

The last burial at the site was that of Mary Mueller on Wednesday, January 19, 1977 at 11.50am.

“I thought it was sad that these children and women seemed to be forgotten in death as well as life.”

Individual graves

 

The actual grave site consists of broken slabs of cement which cover the individual graves. The names of 51 residents are memorialised on the one plaque giving the incorrect impression of a mass grave. 

Volunteer researcher Ruth Claridge also discovered another person who was interred, Elizabeth Quirk, bringing the total number in the grave site to 52. 

So far, more than 23 individual graves have been cited with two to three people in each grave. The youngest individual is 17 months and the oldest 86.

“The residents had no family to care for them in their living years,” Mr Williams said. 

“So the sisters gave them a home and then they buried them here.”

Over the past few years many other people  have commented on how the grave site has gradually deteriorated. 

Mr Williams was determined to do something about the condition of the grave site and since the beginning of the year he has steered a group of community volunteers to undertake what is now the St Aidan’s Grave Beautification Project.

       

Moving ritual

It would take a hard person not to be moved by last Thursday’s actual ritual which marked the start of the beautification project. 

As clouds slid past the early spring sun, the old plaque was lifted off by Mr Williams and Gendrie Klein-Breteler of the Good Shepherd Sisters. The plaque was then handed to RPCV representative Joanne Trickey. 

As part of the ceremony, the volunteers wrote the residents’ names on small rocks and placed them on the grave at the location of their burial and prayers were said for them. 

The ritual was observed by Bishop Les Tomlinson, Monsignor Frank Marriott, RPCV CEO Graham Fountain, Sister Paula Rainbow, and RPCV staff and volunteers.

As part of the beautification program the  Good Shepherd Sisters have provided funds to restore the existing grave. 

A second, two-year stage will be to beautify the site with the intention of the general Bendigo community raising funds for a memorial. 

“Work to beautify the grave will show the women and children have not been forgotten in death,” Mr Williams said.

“The project volunteers wanted the grave site to accurately represent who is buried there, including the correct spelling of their names.

“Their hours of research enabled the volunteers to identify the place of internment for each person.”

Research continues

While research will continue about the history of the grave site, a particularly tragic story has already been revealed by Claire Everton. 

In a research project conducted for La Trobe University, Ms Everton discovered the story of 11-year-old Annie Murphy who died in 1909 when her dress caught fire in the orphanage kitchen. 

The project team hopes to have the beautification completed by the anniversary of Annie’s death in 2019.

Mr Williams said he understood how times were different back then. It was an era when the term “safety net” did not exist. 

If a family fell upon hard times, then religious orders such as the Good Shepherd Sisters stepped in to care for those in need. 

Sister Joan Murphy said some of the women they cared for would have suffered from mild intellectual disorders.

“There was some discrimination then, when no one else would have them, if they were a little bit different, individuals would be sent to us,” she said.

On behalf of the Good Shepherd Sisters, Ms Klein-Breteler apologised to those girls and women who were hurt or suffered during the time they spent at the orphanage; and said the order continued to work with some former residents  who are in need of care.   

“Of the more than 4000 people who lived at St Aidan’s we recognise that the conditions in this shelter were tough for many,” Ms Klein-Breteler said.

RPCV representative Joanne Trickey said the Good Shepherd Sisters hold the right of internment meaning they have “over all ownership” of what happens to the grave.

The actual memorialisation options will take into account input from interested parties, with the Sisters and the RPCV having the final say in the design.

People who are interested in contributing to the project or who are looking for more information can visit www.rpcv.com.au 

St Aidan’s past residents or their families, who would like to access their records or speak with the Sisters are encouraged to contact Good Shepherd’s Heritage Engagement Coordinator on 1800 812 702.

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