PHIL Merrigan knew of some of the “horrific” goings on at the Gill Memorial Boys Home over the way.
Growing up at the nearby St John’s Orphanage he considered himself lucky.
“The nuns (Sisters of Mercy) looked after us and never turned anyone away,” he said.
“…There were about 50 wards of the state when I was there but a lot of children were just dropped off at the door.”
Three Sisters looked after 72 boys during Mr Merrigan’s time at St John’s from 1960 to 1969. Among them were the Mother Superior - Sr Genevieve Cummins and Sr Madeleine, of whom he can’t speak highly enough.
He was just five when placed in the orphanage.
“My life at home (near Wagga Wagga) was horrific,” Mr Merrigan said.
“I was beaten up every weekend by a drunken father. I ran away and then the welfare people got onto it.”
He told The Catholic Weekly in 2012 that his father tied him to a bed and stuck socks in his mouth, enabling him to beat his son without the neighbours hearing.
In all his time at St John’s he said he received two beatings and “deserved both of them.”
Mr Merrigan fondly remembers the little acts of kindness from the Sisters, including annual concerts in which the children sang and danced.
“There were (also) a lot of generous people in Goulburn. If not for their generosity we wouldn’t have been fed,” he said.
“When you’re seven or eight you don’t realise it’s a survival thing. We complained that the fruit was a bit off and the bread was stale but we didn’t know it was all donated.
“…The nuns were tough but fair. We had three meals a day although we always thought we were starving.”
Sport was also a mainstay of daily life.
Some 2500 children stayed at the institution from 1912 until its closure in 1978. Even in the war years there were up to 270 boys housed there.
Such was the boys’ fondness for the Sisters they kept in regular contact with their carers.
Sr Genevieve, who originally hailed from Murringo, was later awarded an Order of Australia for services to children.
She died in 2002, aged 92.
Sr Madeleine Lawrence died at Young’s Mercy Care in June, 2013, aged 110. Old boys made an annual pilgrimage to visit her on her birthday, the last one in December, 2012.
After leaving the orphanage, the young Phil Merrigan went fruit picking and potato digging. He ended up in Newcastle where at age 24 he bought his own business.
He owned one of the largest Canon dealerships in Australia until selling the business four years ago.
Along the way he married and had two daughters and a son.
These days he is retired but maintains a website dedicated to the orphanage and the Sisters of Mercy.
It’s a network for old boys, informs of reunions and contains articles.
Through their efforts the St John’s Old Boys were able to this year reunite a former resident with a prized boxing trophy he won as a child and subsequently lost. It turned up among items the Sisters had held in trust.
The group is also trying to track down another resident’s two sisters who were placed in St Joseph’s Girls Orphanage at Kenmore when they were very young and who he never saw again.
Sad tales aside, Mr Merrigan attributes his start in life to the orphanage and the Sisters of Mercy and describes St John’s reunions as “upbeat and positive.”