In the Phase I hearing into Goldenbridge, Sr Helena O’Donoghue, Provincial Leader of the South Central Province, said: Each of the five Sisters who acted as Sisters in charge and involved in the Industrial School were professionally trained teachers at Carysfort Training College, which was a significant feature in the Dublin Mercy Community. Sr Bianca also had qualifications and certifications in domestic economy, cookery, needlework and household management. These Sisters also were supported by other Sisters as I have said, but who might not necessarily have any had particular training. Those who worked in the kitchen were qualified cooks and others would have taken short courses in household management.
The fact that Sr Bianca was asked to deliver the lecture is evidence that she was highly regarded as a childcare expert, and the lecture expressed an enlightened and progressive view of childcare in the 1950s. Sr Bianca knew how a good institution should be run, and her lecture provides a standard against which Goldenbridge and other Sisters of Mercy industrial schools may be judged. Moreover, these progressive views demonstrated the principles that could have been inculcated in generations of carers, if training had been provided, with potentially dramatic consequences for children in care.
These further concessions as to the negative aspects of institutional life are relevant in the investigations into the different schools, not only those run by the Sisters of Mercy. They are also material to the assessment of the system as a whole. The question has to be considered whether, and to what extent, detention in an industrial school meant that a child was doomed to suffer ill-treatment or neglect amounting to abuse of some kind. Whatever the answers to those questions, it does seem that Sr Bianca’s lecture in 1953 touched on many of the issues identified by the Sisters in their list of negative features, and contained advice on how to remedy them. At least some of the negative features mentioned could have been dealt with by the approach proposed by Sr Bianca, which stressed the need for individual care and sympathetic treatment. The same can be said about the comments and recommendations made by the Cussen Commission.
Only two of the 10 Resident Managers fulfilled the role of Sister-in-Charge and had direct involvement in the day-to-day management of the Industrial School. One such Resident Manager was Sr Bianca,1 who held the position from the early 1940s to the mid-1950s. The other was Sr Venetia,2 and her term of office ran from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s.
Before Sr Bianca was appointed to Goldenbridge, Sr Vincenza7 of Carysfort had appointed Sr Divina8 as Resident Manager in the early 1940s, which prompted the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Education to protest. He wrote: I am desired by the Minister for Education to call your attention to the fact that the new Resident Manager whom you have appointed in St. Vincent’s Industrial School, Goldenbridge, is 79 years of age. The Minister feels that the management of an Industrial School would constitute a very heavy burden and responsibility on a lady of this advanced age. The supervision of the feeding, clothing, education and health of about 150 children, together with the keeping of the many accounts, records etc., which are required and, in addition, the fulfilment of her duties as Reverend Mother of the community would, in the Minister’s opinion, constitute a heavy burden on a much younger and more active person. The Minister would accordingly be glad if you would reconsider this appointment with a view to appointing a much younger Sister who has had experience of children and on whom the complex duties of management would not be so burdensome.
Sr Vincenza replied immediately to the Assistant Secretary: In reply to your letter of 29th September regarding the appointment of an aged Sister as Manager of Golden Bridge Industrial School, I have this day appointed as Manager one of the Staff – Sr. Bianca– to that position. When appointing the Manager on the 12th September I sent an extra Sister to the Ind. School, who holds very high qualifications and certificates for Domestic Economy, Cookery, Needlework and Household Knowledge, to help with the management with the household work and management of the children, so that Sr. Bianca could be free to devote some time to the duties that the Manager would have to undertake. The appointment made today leaves Mother Pia9 free to devote herself to the Community in Golden Bridge Convent.
That, however, was not the end of the matter; the Department immediately replied, seeking clarification: Please state whether it is your intention to authorise Sister Bianca to exercise all the powers, functions and duties of the Managers in accordance with the provisions of the Children Acts, 1908 to 1941.
The Department of Education wanted to ensure that the actual day-to-day running of the Institution would be in the hands of a young, energetic, qualified Sister. Sr Bianca was appointed as Sister-in-Charge of the Industrial School in the early 1940s, and was appointed Resident Manager the following year. At the same time Sr Alida, who was a young newly professed Sister, in her mid-20s, was appointed as her assistant. Sr Bianca continued as Resident Manager until the mid-1950s.
According to Sr Alida, when Sr Bianca took over ‘she was a very powerful personality, controlling person. She went to her major Superior in Carysfort and said she would take the running of the school ... provided she got the handling of the finance’.
Sr Alida said that this gave her ‘great ease of conscience’ because it meant that nobody could ever question that the money given to the Industrial School was spent by the convent in any other way. She explained: there were lots of allegations at that time made, rightly or wrongly, that school money went to the convent. That was the system. Sr Bianca ended that system and the money was – she had the cheque book, Pietrina never had a cheque book, and paid the bills.
Sr Alida maintained that only a person as powerful as Sr Bianca could have succeeded in having this change made to the management structure of Goldenbridge. She said that, before Sr Bianca’s intervention, the money came into the convent to the Superior and was lodged to the bank: I know we used to say that it wasn’t all totally honestly done, I have absolutely nothing to say about that. I am not saying that. What I am saying was that the person running the school, Sr. Pietrina, would have said to me one day, and she was a long time in the school, “all the money I ever handled while I was in the School was the money for the dripping”.
Sr Alida described Sr Bianca as a woman with a forceful personality: I am saying it now with gratitude in my heart to her, she was a very controlling person, she could achieve things that I would never have done. I would have started in Goldenbridge if I were in her shoes doing a very different thing. I would have started looking for money to buy knickers and vests for the children. She saw the bigger facilities. They matched her personality. She got the walk-in fridge, she got two big steamers, the hotels wouldn’t have them at that time, the kind she got. She had massive immediate improvements in the School, massive. She didn’t see the need for changing the blankets or changing their homemade knickers. The School wouldn’t have advanced as much as they did only for the power she had.
Sr Alida spoke at length about the changes that Sr Bianca introduced into Goldenbridge Industrial School immediately upon her appointment. In many ways, these changes speak more of the regime that existed before Sr Bianca’s appointment than anything else. They point to a management which had been so poor and so negligent that the children could not possibly have received even a minimum standard of care.
The two areas which Sr Bianca tackled immediately were (i) the medical care of the children, and (ii) the standard of education.
Sr Alida vividly described the problem tackled by Sr Bianca which had reached crisis proportions at the time of her appointment. The Institution had been allowed to deteriorate into an appalling condition and Sr Bianca tackled these problems energetically.