By Diana Rusk
CHILDHOOD MEMORIES: Above, the children of Nazareth Lodge including Deirdre (circled).
FOR most of her life, 54-year-old Deirdre Harper has been petrified of water. She says the fear stems from an incident during her childhood when her head was repeatedly forced under water after she took a bath at the wrong time.
Other memories of those days include the time her face was pushed into urine-soaked sheets to punish her for wetting the bed.
Then there are the countless beatings she endured from a leather strap that hung near a string of Rosary beads and the times she was pulled up flights of stairs by her hair.
Deirdre was one of hundreds of disadvantaged children taken into the care of the religious order, the Sisters of Nazareth, and placed into Nazareth House in south Belfast.
Behind the red-bricked walls of the Ormeau Road building, some of the sisters charged with caring for the children are instead alleged to have subjected them to physical violence and mental abuse.
Decades later, nine former residents have made claims for compensation against the religious order.
The Sisters of Nazareth have already settled two claims while the remaining seven are being pursued through solicitors.
Deirdre is one of two other former residents who have instead dealt directly with the order to try to get some closure.
She also wants her story heard.
“A public apology from the Sisters of Nazareth and the Catholic Church would be a start,” the mother-of-two said.
“The abuse that went on in Nazareth House was horrendous.”
Deirdre, then O’Donoghue, was born in Limerick but moved to Belfast shortly after her air-traffic controller father developed an addiction to alcohol and lost his job.
She and her two elder sisters were removed from her family home by the NSPCC in 1959 and dispatched into the care of the Sisters of Nazareth.
“I was four years old and taken to the nursery department while my two older sisters were taken to another department,” she said.
“I could only see them through the iron gates in the yard which separated both departments. I would scream and cry for them to come to me but this was not allowed.
“My time in the nursery wasn’t too bad except for being away from my sisters. There was a nice nun in charge who would give me a cuddle when I was upset. The nightmare began when I left the nursery.”
An early photograph of Deirdre shows her smiling beside the other children in the home as they enjoy playing on a slide during a Christmas party.
In the background, however, she claims the reality was much different and that her childhood memories are filled with emotional terror.
She claims she was punished for wetting the bed, taking a bath at the wrong time and, when she ran away once, she was dragged by the hair up several flights of stairs and locked in a storeroom.
Presents given to her during brief stays with her aunt and uncle were taken away when she returned to Nazareth House and a strap that hung from the nun’s belt was used to beat her and the other children.
At night-time there were checks to ensure all the children slept on their backs with their arms crossed over their bodies – “so that if we died in our sleep we would go to heaven”.
“Saturdays were spent polishing floors. I was down on my knees doing my best to get a good shine on the floor,” she recalled.
“Whichever nun came to inspect my work, if it wasn’t good enough I was grabbed by my hair and swung about.”
Except for the brief outings to Ormeau Park where she “could be a child for a while”, she said she felt like a prisoner in the children’s home.
“The cruelty that went on behind those walls still haunts me now at the age of 54,” she said.
“I was a child who took the beatings and accepted it as the norm as it was all I knew.
“Seeing other children taking a beating was horrendous to watch knowing there was nothing we could do to help each other.”
The Poor Sisters of Nazareth were founded in the mid-19th century in Hammersmith, London, to take care of the young and the old. There were Nazareth Houses all over Britain, Ireland, Australia and South Africa.
The home on the Ormeau Road was opened in 1876 as a home for the children and the elderly. There was also a school on the site but all care for children stopped more than a quarter of a century ago.
Of the nuns that Deirdre claims abused her, two are dead, one is the subject of a civil case from another former resident and the fourth has been described by the order as being in “poor and frail health”.
During meetings with the order, the nuns were unable to give Deirdre any answers to her allegations blaming institutional practices at the time.
She has received an apology of sorts through a letter from Sr Mary Anne Monaghan, the superior-general of Nazareth House.
“I am pained and sorry that the years you spent in the care of Nazareth House have left you with unhappy memories,” it stated.
“I am sorry for anything that you feel was done to you by the Sisters of Nazareth that may have caused you suffering or anguish.
“It is a matter of profound regret to the Sisters and to me that your time with us has left you with those painful memories.
“Unfortunately we cannot change the past. I hope your contact with us over this last while will help ease, insofar as is possible, some of the hurt and distress you feel.
“I also hope that it may help you get on with your life, despite your pain, in a positive and fulfilling way.”
While some of those living in Nazareth House have come forward about their abuse, others are only beginning to gather the courage.
Stella Percival, originally from Randalstown, Co Antrim, only decided to look into her past earlier this year when she got a computer and learned how to use the internet.
She has never spoken to lawyers or sought compensation from the religious order.
The 57-year-old searched the term ‘Nazareth House’ and found a group of survivors of the regime speaking out about their childhoods.
“I was just a baby when my mother left me there. She was an unmarried mother and she later went to England to live,” she said.
“I was there from 1951, the year I was born, until I was 16. Even then I had to work for them for a year when I left school.
“The one thing I remember about the abuse was that I used to wet my bed until I was 13.
“We used to be terrified because we had to line up in the mornings outside the nuns room and we would get an awful beating if you did it.
“So we used to make our beds up and pretend we were dry so at night we would climb back into a soaking wet bed rather than face another beating.”
Like many children, she was frightened of the dark but she claims she was made to stand on a stage with the light switched off.
“I was so afraid because it was pitch black and I would be left there for hours at a time.”
“These experiences have affected my whole life.”
“I would like an apology for the terrible times we had in their care.
“I would not like a face-to-face meeting because I think I would feel too intimidated and would feel sick if I had to meet them after all these years.
“I would like the public to know how we were treated and I also think we should all get compensation.
“I know that people brought up in homes in the south of Ireland have received it and America and Australia so we should be entitled to it too.
“Some people have already got compensation and we were all in there at the same time so why not us?
“I do plan to put in for this myself. It is not greed. They ruined our life. I never went out for years and I was so brainwashed I was afraid of any one in charge. I could never speak up for myself. I was as timid as a mouse.
“One good thing that did come out of all that was that I swore my children would never experience anything like that and I would have died before they ever got taken into care.
“They made my life worth living.”
Sr Patricia Enright, a spokeswoman from the Sisters of Nazareth, said there have been complaints about the care of children at the Ormeau Road institution.
“Since 1995, nine former residents of Nazareth House, Belfast have made a claim for compensation against the Sisters of Nazareth,” she said.
“Two of those cases have been settled by the Sisters of Nazareth.
“The other cases are being handled by the solicitors for the claimants and the Sisters of Nazareth have engaged with them.
“Two other persons have made complaints to the sisters about their treatment in Nazareth House and the sisters have engaged with them also.”