Sharing my love of Melbourne with Melburnians and guests of this great city!
Published May 26th 2015
A historical city in Melbourne's backyard
When you think of historic sites places like Pompeii, Stonehenge and the pyramids all come to mind. For some a little closer to home, Melbourne has its own little secret gem, with a historic "city" right in our backyard.
Whilst it may still be fighting for a much-deserved heritage listing, Abbotsford Convent is rich with history and the Social History Tours run by the amazing and passionate volunteers is a great way to hear all about the buildings and people that have inhabited its walls.
The tour begins with a brief but fascinating history of the Kulin people. Here you can get a quick lesson on the meanings of the names of and settlement of the area, including how the convent came to be in 1863.
Opened at a time when Victoria's Catholic Bishop, Alipius Goold, was in competition with the Anglican Bishop to spread the influence of the Catholic Church, five sisters from the Dublin House of a French Order of nuns, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, were invited to Melbourne to run the convent as a place of refuge for women. Living memories from the women who were either part of the young orphans, older orphans, nuns, boarders and the girls in the laundries inform the tour.
Stories of escapism, slavery, family, ghosts all help you to imagine what it was like for the women at the time. But, whilst some found the convent a refuge, others were not so fortunate and lived a life devoid of liberty.
As the nuns were quite industrious, by 1900 the convent was the largest charitable organisation in the hemisphere and was famous for its laundry service. Perhaps shockingly, despite its fame, large walls and locked gates surrounded the laundry and residents in the surrounding suburbs and even in the convent itself were not aware of the slave labour conditions in the laundry.
The gardens at the convent also tell a story, from the Coronation Tree to the Federation Tree, and trees where you can still see where they were cut back to stop the girls from climbing them and escaping over the huge brick fence that surrounded the entire convent grounds. The nuns originally had only non-native plants in the gardens and were diligent in trading exotic seedlings from all over the world; however, native plants now grow in the gardens.
From humble beginnings, the convent became the Provincial (head) House for the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in the Pacific. All nuns had to train in the convent before venturing out and completing their work. However, in 1975, the convent closed with most of the religious artefacts auctioned off. You can still see where crosses and statues have been removed, with only the ones cemented (and therefore difficult to remove) still remaining.
Something missing: the nuns sold religious statues when convent was sold
The Abbotsford Convent was gifted to the Victorian public by the state government in 2004, but remnants from all former occupiers can still be seen. The heaters installed in the convent remain from La Trobe University's residency and, in some parts, the original flooring has been lost. Today the convent is a hub of entertainment, culture, arts, crafts and delicious food and attracts around a million visitors per year.
To find out more about the convent and the people who lived there, head down to the convent on Sunday afternoons at 2pm. Tours leave from Cam's Café and run for approximately 90 minutes in all weather conditions, so remember to pack an umbrella, hat, or sunscreen.
Fees from the carpark and the tour all go towards the restoration and running of the convent.