Katherine Moran on the San Francisco Magdalen Asylum

Author: Philip Byers

Katherine Moran Headshot
Katherine Moran

Katherine Moran is an associate professor of American studies at Saint Louis University. She received a Mother Theodore Guerin Research Travel Grant from the Cushwa Center in 2020 for her project “California Magdalens: Catholic Sisters, Female Penitents, and the Carceral State, 1850–1940.”


Philip Byers: Your first book, The Imperial Church, illuminates the “cross-confessional” nature of imperial rhetoric at the height of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Your new research covers some of the same chronological and geographical territory, but it also adds new themes. Describe for us what drew you to the topic of Magdalen asylums.  

Katherine Moran: My first book covered a lot of territory, quite literally: it examined a national conversation as it played out in three broad sites: the upper Midwest, Southern California, and the U.S. colonial Philippines. By the time I was done, I wanted to shift scales, to immerse myself in one place and think outward from that. 

“California Magdalens” is a history of one particular institution: the San Francisco Magdalen Asylum. For most of its history, from 1856 to 1932, the asylum was located in a stolid building on Potrero Avenue. It was founded by a group of five Irish sisters and three Irish novices, Sisters of Mercy, who arrived on a ship from Ireland on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. As the sisters’ chroniclers tell it, on their first morning in San Francisco, Mother Mary de Sales Reddan threw a miraculous medal into the muddy streets, claiming the gold rush city for the Virgin Mary. Within two years they had founded the Magdalen asylum, dedicated to “the reclamation of abandoned and dissolute Females.” The asylum quickly became a state-sponsored carceral institution, receiving state funds in return for incarcerating girls sentenced by the courts to the city’s Industrial School. As a result, it was the subject of a number of religiously motivated lawsuits. 

So this is a history about ideas and practices: about femininity, deviance, and repentance. It is one that allows me to continue to explore the history of the relationship between Roman Catholicism and the state, and religion and U.S. settler colonialism on the Pacific coast, and also to bring those concerns to bear on carceral history. I was drawn to the project for all these reasons, but also because it is very much rooted in one place and group of people: in the building on Potrero Avenue, and in the women and girls whose lives led them to and through it.


PB: You intend to use the story of Magdalen asylums to help “expand the religious history of incarceration in the United States,” a literature too often constructed around men’s prisons and the Protestant theologies that informed them. What unique perspectives have you found by focusing on Catholic institutional and carceral practices?   

KM: This is a core question of the project, and I wish I knew the answer to it right now. COVID has interrupted my research in a way that has been frustrating but has, I hope, allowed for new insights. I had anticipated spending this year traveling to a number of archives, chief among them the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas West Midwest Community Archives in North Carolina. Logically, I was going to start with the papers of the sisters who ran the asylum, and then do what I could to better understand the lives of the inmates themselves. But COVID has reversed this order of my research: while the Mercy archives are closed to visitors, I was lucky to receive from a Sisters of Mercy archivist a set of scanned documents that includes a remarkably detailed register of asylum inmates. I have been engaged in using this as a basis for tracking down biographical information about the women and girls of the asylum through digitized newspapers, government records, and other biographical sources. 

So at this point, instead of discovering what was unique about Catholic institutional and carceral practices, I am learning about the other side of the story: about how this Catholic institution fit within a larger carceral landscape in 19th-century Northern California, one that included a range of overlapping institutions such as jails, prisons, industrial schools, orphanages, “lunatic” asylums, and hospitals. The Magdalen asylum seems to have functioned—in a complicated way that I have yet to fully map—as a refuge for some women facing sex trafficking, abuse, abandonment, or poverty; an employment agency for those seeking domestic laborers; and a place of imprisonment for girls sent by the courts or their families. 


PB: You situate “California Magdalens” in a transnational scholarly conversation about Magdalen asylums, but these institutions have received less attention in the U.S. than in, for example, Ireland or Australia. What explains that relative inattention in the United States?

KM: I’ve heard two explanations for this, one of which I’d accept and the other I’d accept with an asterisk. The first is that, by and large, the Magdalen asylums—often called Magdalen(e) laundries, because the women inside them earned money for the institution by doing heavy laundry work—persisted much longer in Ireland and Australia than they did in the United States. They remained open in Ireland, for example, into the 1990s: there are more ex-inmates alive in Ireland, more people with memories of these asylums existing in their communities, more families who have sent their children to them. This makes for a different kind of politics, memorialization, and reconciliation than you have in the United States.

The other explanation I’ve heard is that, because of the separation of church and state in the United States, the U.S. institutions were less powerful—had less unchecked authority over inmates’ lives—and are therefore less subject to present-day debate and criticism. Certainly the Catholic Church has a different place in U.S. history and culture than it does in Ireland. But that explanation can also go too far: one of the things that even this early research has made clear is that the San Francisco Magdalen Asylum had a very cozy relationship to the state, and that Catholic networks of parishes and parochial schools overlapped and interacted densely with institutions like the police, the board of supervisors, and the state legislature. So I think part of what has happened is that a casual assumption that the United States does or did have a firmer wall of separation than there ever has been, and an assumption that Roman Catholic institutions in particular could not be so closely tied to the state, has facilitated the historical erasure of institutions like these. And if we want to make full sense of the current moment of governmental reliance on faith-based organizations and debates about religious liberty, as well as the deep history of private carceral institutions in the United States, it is important to fight that erasure.


PB: When you first proposed your research, only a few people in the world had even heard of the novel coronavirus. Then the pandemic forced you to adapt your methods. What did your collaboration with the Sisters of Mercy archivist teach you about historical methodology? 

KM: First of all, I am deeply grateful for the time that archivist Elizabeth Johnson took to help me, through conversations, emails, providing scans, connecting me with another historian, and in general making this work possible. I don’t know what I would have done this year without her expert assistance.

The main thing that this year’s experience has done for this project—and I think it is salutary—is that it has led me to start the research with the asylum inmates rather than with the sisters, the institution, or government records. Beginning with the inmates themselves has meant beginning with the hardest-to-grasp elements of this history. It has led me to consider, earlier and in greater depth than I might otherwise have done, some of the problems of power and silence in these sources, problems that are central to both the limitations and the potential of this project.

More broadly, the experience has also reminded me how fragmentary even the best-sourced historical research is, how much it is like wandering around a crowded dark room with a narrow flashlight. This is a truism, of course, but one that is easy to forget when starting a new project surrounded by archival boxes and shelves of books. That richness can hold out the possibility—fictive though compelling—of eventual completion or mastery of the subject. Beginning this project in a condition of scarcity, following thin leads as far as they can go, has helped me ground myself in a necessary humility about my relationship to this past. 


PB: Tell us about an especially illuminating source you and the local archivist identified. 

KM: The most illuminating source, by far, is the asylum register kept by the sisters during the first 17 years of the asylum, which I am using as the basis for biographical research on the inmates. It also contains far more than names and dates: it often includes a note about why different women and girls came (or were sent) to the asylum, where they went afterwards, what they did in the asylum, and more. It also contains traces of the sisters’ attitudes towards the inmates: heavy underlining under the word “incorrigible,” for example, next to the name of a girl who tried to escape by jumping out a high window, only to be found “senseless” on the sidewalk the next morning, or a carefully calligraphed “R.I.P.” next to the name of an older woman repeatedly committed to the asylum by her husband for “excessive use of alcohol.” Without ever forgetting that one must read all asylum sources with caution, there is much to learn here, both about the circumstances that brought girls and women to the asylum and about the sisters’ understanding of their institution’s work and purpose.


PB: You released your first book only last May, so this new project clearly has many iterations still to come. What task is next on your agenda, and where do you see this manuscript going? 

KM: Right now, like many researchers, I am looking forward to and hoping for a future that will allow me to go to archives and libraries. But even from home, over the past few months I have been lucky to speak with a number of people, from prison activists to religious sisters, who have helped me think through the resonances of this past. We have talked about the continuing high rate of women’s incarceration in the United States, the memorial work happening elsewhere related to Magdalen asylums, and the ongoing concern of many religious congregations with anti-sex-trafficking work, just to name a few examples. So I am also looking forward to continuing to explore the public and present-day import of this work and to building opportunities for conversation and communal knowledge production that extend beyond the academy.      


Philip Byers is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center.

This interview appears in the spring 2021 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter.