Updated 11 April 2017
In an article about Catholic adoptions, written by a reporter at the Guardian Newspaper in 2009, excerpts appear from the book: ‘The Lost Child of Philomena Lee’ by Martin Sixmith. (This story has been made into a film Philomena – starring Judi Dench). It tracks the heartbreak of an unmarried mother (fallen woman) whose son was adopted out as an infant. After years of trying to come to terms with her loss, Philomena attempts to track down her son and he in turn looks for her. They are thwarted by various institutions and cruel nuns, her son dies before she finds him, not knowing that she was searching for him too. The book encapsulates the hardships experienced by young mothers and their infants following the adoption process which was often forced on them by the Catholic Church. Stories such as this were repeated over and over in the 40s & 50s, not only in Britain and other parts of Europe, but also in Australasia. My mother, Doreen Frandi (see my post ‘Whatever Happened To Ishtar?’), experienced a similar fate at the hands of the Catholic Church.
Philomena tells the reader that after giving birth, the girls were allowed to leave the convent, only after they or their families paid the nuns one hundred pounds. The vast majority couldn’t afford this sum, so lived a life of ‘pay back’ drudgery for three years while living in the convent. They made artifacts and rosary beads and the Church kept the profits from their sales. [See post July 2010 ... Carla Van Raay’s book God’s Callgirl]. The young mothers were forced to sign a document giving away all their rights to their infants and surrendering them to the nuns.
None of the mothers wanted to give their infants up, but instead of assisting them to keep their babies, the nuns reminded them that they would not be able to keep their babies and work for their upkeep at the same time. Even though she was in her 70s when the article was written, Philomena still cried at the thought of what happened on the day the nuns took her little boy from her. Because her family refused to allow her to return home, she was sent by the Church to work at a home for delinquent boys.
After marrying and having children, Philomena set on a path to find her lost son. She returned again and again to the convent, but the heartless nuns just kept reminding her that she had signed a legal document stating she relinquished all rights to her son and that she would never attempt to find him.
Philomena quotes in the book “Early on in the search, I realised that the Irish Catholic hierarchy had been engaged in what amounted to an illicit baby trade. From the end of the second world war until the 1970s, it considered the thousands of souls born in its care to be the Church’s own property. With or without the agreement of their mothers, it sold them to the highest bidder. Every year, hundreds were shipped off to American couples who paid ‘donations’ (in reality, fees) …the only condition laid down by archbishop McQuaid was that “… [the adopting parents] should be practising Catholics”.
Separated by fate, mother and child spent decades looking for each other and were repeatedly thwarted by the refusal of the Church to reveal information about the family who adopted the boy, each unaware of the other’s heart-breaking search. Her son spent his last years in a downward spiral; tormented by his inability to find his mother and the orphan’s sense of helplessness, he didn’t know where he came from, who he was, or how he should live. He felt unloved by his adoptive family, especially his father. When he contracted aids, he made one last emotional plea to the convent orphanage for information about his mother but they steadfastly refused to oblige this dying man’s final request. He asked therefore if they would at least grant him permission to be buried in the convent cemetery where upon his headstone he could place enough details so that if his mother ever came looking for him (my emphasis) she would know where he was buried. The nuns callously remained tight-lipped about the fact that his mother had been searching for him for decades and that his maternal aunts and an uncle lived just a few miles down the road from the convent. His mother found his obituary in a US newspaper.
Delinquent Angel, a biography about a Melbourne poet, Shelton Lea, written by Diana Georgeff in 2007, is another tragic story about a man’s futile search for his birth mother, the Lea family (NSW Darrell Lea chocolate dynasty) who adopted him and whose ulterior motives didn’t include a loving family life. Yes, and another Christian institution was involved.
Lea Family dynamics proved disastrous for Shelton and his adoptive mother placed him in a psychiatric institution at the age of three. But his biological heritage eventually shone through and although his was a brilliant talent, tragically it never reached its full potential.
-Anne Frandi-Coory 28 August 2013