This weekend I went into the suburb of Abbotsford to visit one of Melbourne’s heritage buildings: the Abbotsford convent. At the moment the former convent is a place where art meets health and where locals come in the weekend for a bite to eat and to relax in the surrounding park. In the 11 buildings of the former Convent of the Good Shepherd you can find pop up shops, restaurants, art spaces, rooms for events and there is even a school in there. During the week, it’s where people work and during the weekend, it’s where people come to enjoy themselves.
But this wasn’t always an enjoyable place. The place started as a ‘gentlemen farmlet’, but was soon sold to the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Started by four women, the convent grew to be one of the biggest Catholic complexes of Australia and housed over 1000 women at its peak. Most of the inhabitants were young girls who were either orphaned or had a mental or behavioural problem. Or sometimes their family simply couldn’t provide for them. Most people in the convent would never come outside its walls, since they grew their own food, provided some schooling and had a commercial laundry to make some money.
Life was strict and harsh for the kids living inside the convent’s walls. There was little time to be a kid, since every day had a strict program including a lot of praying, chores, work and if you were lucky education. For those that weren’t that lucky, there was a special building, completely separated, where the children that were only put to work were hidden from the others. As we walked through the property, we got to see the large, cold rooms, painted green and pink, where one day the children had their beds. There was a peephole for the nun in charge, in the room next door and there were bars on the windows.
On the buildings you can find photos of what it used to look like. There were no electrical lights for a long time. The glass in the windows is sheet glass, something that’s prohibited in public buildings nowadays. The wood was made to look like European wood. When the sisters left they deconsecrated the building and thus there aren’t many religious icons left. You can see the shape of a cross on the wall and broken plaster where icons used to be. But in one building, in an awkward and high spot, there is still a sculpture on the wall.
Unfortunately it is hard to maintain a building like this and since it is a heritage building, it needs to be preserved as much as possible. Carpets cover a beautiful mosaic floor to protect it from high heeled brides. Graffiti regularly appears on the old walls. But there is also art that’s created to be at the convent, like huge ‘nuns’ in beautiful habits. It was beautiful to walk through a place with a fascinating history, that has been transformed into a cultural hotspot. You can come for an afternoon in the park, a bite to eat, or to learn about the history in one of the social history tours that go out on Sundays. To me the Abbotsford convent was a surprisingly beautiful place and perfect for a Sunday afternoon visit.