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KEVIN CULLEN

Mistreated in a convent, she never turned on her Catholic faith

Her name was Catherine. She grew up in Ireland and when she was 7, her mother died.

Her father remarried and the new wife didn’t want the distraction of kids. When Catherine was 14, her father put her on the handlebars of a bicycle and pedaled 25 miles to a convent and handed Catherine over to the nuns.

The nuns put her to work in a laundry. They didn’t pay her. They wouldn’t let her leave.

“We were slaves,” Catherine told me, when we first met seven years ago.

Each Sunday, the reverend mother sat before the laundry girls in a big chair and read out the previous week’s transgressions. One Sunday, the reverend mother accused Catherine of talking during work, which was forbidden. When Catherine denied it, two girls held her down and the reverend mother used scissors to cut off her hair.

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On another occasion, she was locked in a small room for two days without a window, a toilet, a bed. Her bladder was bursting and when she peed on the floor, she felt worthless.

She was still a teenager when she was put on a train for Dublin, told to work in a hospital. She later left for London and became a nurse. But England wasn’t far enough away so, 50 years ago, she came to Massachusetts. She worked as a nurse in and around Boston and lived in Lowell for many years.

She never married, never had children. She never made much money and spent a lot of it on therapy. She never turned her back on her Catholic faith.

“God didn’t do that to me,” she said. “Misguided, cruel people did.”

She told very few people about the humiliation and degradation she suffered as a teenager. But some of those whom she did tell tried to help her. Among them were Imelda Murphy, who lived in Nashua, and James Smith, a professor at Boston College who wrote a book about the insidious practice of Ireland’s government and the Catholic religious orders colluding to force women to work at laundries without pay.

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For years, they and others fought for Catherine. The first pension, about $7 a week, was a joke. They kept pushing for more. Then, three years ago, Enda Kenny, Ireland’s prime minister, apologized to Catherine and the other women who were forced to work in laundries. A year later, she got a lump sum and a pension she could live on.

The compensation was important, because it allowed Catherine to put aside money to cover her funeral, so her final resting spot would be back in Ireland. But the apology was worth even more.

“It meant everything to her,” Smith said. “It was an official affirmation of what we all knew: She didn’t do anything wrong.”

The power of acknowledgment, the power of sorry, was profound and immeasurable.

Even as her health deteriorated, Catherine seemed more content, more settled, than ever.

Jim Smith spoke at Catherine’s funeral Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Lowell the other day. There were 30 people there. The ladies from her prayer group. The family from Michigan that provided an apartment for her the last five years of her life. A niece who only learned of that humiliating chapter in her aunt’s life after Catherine died. A Massachusetts judge, Merita Hopkins, whose family Catherine had worked for when she first came to America.

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Smith said Catherine gave others far more than he and others gave her.

“Her greatest gift was her unwavering commitment to fairness and her keen sense of justice,” he said. “She wasn’t angry. I never knew her to be bitter or resentful. She was brave. She was courageous. And she had faith and she trusted that right would win out in the end. It did.”

When summer comes, Catherine will go back to Ireland, to a cemetery on the banks of the River Slaney in Wexford. Her ashes will be placed in the grave with her mother, and she will be at peace, at long last.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.