Separated 44 years ago by church, mother and daughter are reunited
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The cotton pouch, frayed with age and closed at the top with string, had for more than 40 years been pinned inside her smock pocket.
Only Johanna Sheehy, knew it was there, and what it contained.
As she dressed for a visitor, her large hands fumbled to secure once again her precious treasure.
"What's that?" asked her niece, Hannah O'Carrol. For 10 years the two had lived together, but the younger woman had never seen the ragged pouch.
She shared her guarded possession. Out slid photos of a tiny, freckled-face child.
"Catherine Regina," explained Johanna.
"How long have you had these?" Hannah asked.
"Forever," said Johanna.
Minutes later, Catherine Regina, red-haired and freckled, walked through the door in Lestowel, Ireland, materializing out of a 44-year void.
"I didn't know if you were alive or dead," cried the then-91-year-old Johanna to Catherine Regina Deasy, her child taken away at birth
Peter Mullan portrays the brutish existence inside the nun-run Good Shepherd Convent laundry in County Cork in the film "The Magdalene Sisters." Though condemned by the Catholic Church, the film won best picture last year at the Venice Film Festival.
Hard to watch
To Cathy, 48, of Fort Lauderdale, Mullan's film is a disturbing peek at the world her mother inhabited for 40 years. It was in the same convent depicted in the film that Johanna, locked behind the fence and thick walls, was forced to wash away her "sins."
"She was brainwashed and dehumanized," said Cathy, who has cried through three screenings of the film.
"The first time when I saw the movie, it was very hard for me," she said. "The scene where the baby is taken from the mother, and the mother is screaming, 'my baby, my baby,' I feel that baby is me."
Catholic women deemed "in moral danger" were taken to workhouses, where they could remain for decades with little or no contact with the outside world. They didn't have to be unwed mothers, as was Johanna. They could be victims of rape or incest, orphans or simply poor.
Clothed in drab, shapeless smocks, they were forced to labor in silence 10 hours a day, six days a week without pay. If they attempted to escape, they were beaten.
"It was slavery, that's what it was," Cathy said.
An estimated 30,000 or more women and teenage girls reportedly were forced into Ireland's Magdalene laundries, where they hand-washed and pressed linens and garments from convents, churches, hotels and well-to-do families. The last laundry closed in 1996.
Release came only if a family, who often had initiated or consented to the removal, retrieved the women. Some women, like Johanna, had that option but were so brainwashed that they were sinful that they were afraid to leave.
What family tried
Through the years, Johanna's sisters and nieces (her parents were deceased) visited and attempted to entice her away from the laundry.
"But my mother's stubborn and she wouldn't go. She felt she would be a disgrace to the family," said Cathy.
Finally, in 1993, Johanna, agreed to go home.
The children of the women who slaved in the laundries were scattered.
"We were bad seeds. Seeds of the sinner, we were called. But they could get money for us," Cathy said. "There were 2,000 of us shipped out in the late '50s and early '60s to Catholic families in America."
It's been reported that adopting families paid $10,000 or more for a child.
Johanna said she sneaked into the convent nursery one time to slip booties on Cathy's feet. For that infraction, she was made to lie face down on the ground, arms stretched out.
Cathy was 41/2 years old when she arrived in New York in 1958. In 1987, she began a 15-year search for her biological mother.
"I thought if I found her, I could help her," she said.
Cathy had only her passport and the erroneous information, passed on by her adoptive parents, that she had been abandoned on the steps of the Sacred Heart Convent in County Cork, Ireland.
The first break came in 2001, after Cathy got a computer and discovered online a group called Adopted People's Association, through which Cathy met activist Bernadette Joyce. She, among other things, was able to obtain a copy of Cathy's birth certificate.
"I finally felt I existed. I had an identity. I belonged to someone," said Cathy.
Finally a nun from Good Shepherd called Hannah O'Carrol. Johanna's daughter was searching for her, the nun said. In June of last year, Cathy and Johanna were reunited.
Cathy was saddened and shocked that shortly after meeting, her mom said to her, "You found the black sheep of the family."
Cathy said, "We shared the same emotional stigma that we were bad people and no one really wanted us. We never truly belonged to anyone."
The reuniting of mother and child has brought a happiness neither had known.
"I feel like a different person these days," Cathy said. "I feel so whole."
And on the phone, her mother keeps asking, "When are you coming home?"
Best of all, last month for the very first time, Johanna told her daughter, "I love you."
Cathy immediately called her friends, saying, "My mother loves me. My mother said she loves me.
"It made me feel so good inside," she said. "I couldn't get the smile off my face."