We Remember, Honour and Acknowledge

StAidansGraveBlessing 350.jpgFor many years the St Aidan’s plot at Bendigo Cemetery had been left in a gradual state of disrepair; three uneven slabs of cracked concrete, reclining fences, and only a small plaque to acknowledge the deceased fueled urban myths and gothic fantasies that the plot was a mass grave.

Studies preparing for the restoration works reveal that the women and children buried at the site were buried side-by-side. Each person is now individually acknowledged through the design of the gravesite. “Stainless steel pointers are like rays of the sun which highlight each person’s name, date of birth and death, and point to the position where they were buried,” said Mr Len Williams, convenor of the St Aidan’s Grave Restoration and Beautification Group. Fifty-two people are buried at the site; the oldest was 86 and the youngest 18 months old, most were women over 70.

“St Aidan’s had become a home for these people, who were orphans, single-mothers or women with a disability; they had nowhere else to go, so in some ways the St Aidan’s gravesite is a family grave,” said Mr Williams.

The grave upgrade features a polished concrete slab and beautiful central piece showing the image of the St Aidan’s building, with the inscription: ‘We Remember, Honour and Acknowledge, the 52 women and children who died while resident at St Aidan’s Bendigo, and were buried at this site between 1907 and 1977.’’

“My initial concerns with the state of the original gravesite . . . have been addressed beyond my expectations,” said Mr Williams, stating that the Restoration Group had carefully chosen landscape designer Lee Adams to design and oversee the project. “We acknowledge and thank her for her respectful design and attention to the details necessary to complete this restoration,” said Mr Williams.

The St Aidan’s Grave Restoration and Beautification Group formed in March 2017 after Len Williams, upon seeing the delapidated state of the St Aidan’s grave site, decided to make sure that something was done to properly acknowledge those buried there. Mr Williams recounts

“It upset me to think that this memorial had fallen into disrepair and didn’t adequately remember those buried here, especially the children.

I was later to find out that there were incorrect spelling of names, some dates were wrong and there was one name not even on the list.

I felt that the site needed to be improved and hoped that I could get some like-minded people to support this.

My initial contact with Remembrance Park Central Victoria was very helpful. I gradually built up a web of contacts and finally had enough interested people to form a committee in March 2017.”

Len Williams, Monsignor Francis Marriott, Sr Joan Murphy, Gendrie Klein-Breteler AM, Jim and Lyn Murtagh, Kath Martin, Gwynn McFadzean, Margaret Tobias and Helen Pentland formed a committee which spent tireless hours working to obtain sponsorship, research and check records, develop criteria for a suitable gravestone and find a suitable design and designer.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Bendigo had taken a hard hit financially and socially. The production of gold was decreasing, as were dividends so many businesses closed operations in Bendigo to focus on Melbourne. There had been significant loss in miners’ lives due to miners’ phthisis and turberculosis. In this context, Bishop Stephen Reville saw a need for an orphanage and women’s refuge.

With funds from the estate of Rev. Dr Henry Backhaus he purchased a house on 40 acres of land on which to build an orphanage and invited the Sisters of the Good Shepherd to come to Bendigo to start caring for orphaned children and women in need. The Good Shepherd Sisters arrived from Melbourne in 1904 and the Foundation stone for the convent was laid on 5 May 1904. The orphanage was officially opened on 19 July 1905.

By October 1906 there were 50 children and 18 women living under the care of the Good Shepherd Sisters, who were well supported by the community as evidenced in over 3000 people who attended an annual Garden Fete in October that year.

In many ways Bishop Reville was ahead of his time he was intent that orphaned siblings should not be separated from each other, and stipulated that the Good Shepherd Sisters were to care for both boys and girls, the only orphanage in Australia to do so.

In 1931 a new building ‘Maryfields’ was opened. Maryfields housed women and girls over the age of 15, while St Aidan’s housed girls up to 16 and boys up to 11 years of age. The convent ceased to operate as a residential facility for children in 1981.

In 1981, St Aidan's terminated its involvement in residential child care. A number of women with disabilities remained in care from 1977, until the property was sold to Girton College in 1984. Most of people buried in the St Aidan’s grave site were women living with a disability.