Magdalen Asylum/St. Catherine's
The Magdalen Asylum, renamed St. Catherine's Home in the early 1900s. Photo taken February, 1925, from Potrero Avenue and 21st Street, courtesy the Online Archive of California.

Potrero Avenue at 21st Street, where Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital’s Behavioral Health Center stands today, was once the site of a Magdalen Asylum run by the Sisters of Mercy. Inside, hundreds of local teen girls were imprisoned while women struggling with mental illness and addiction sought refuge. As with many Magdalen Asylums around the world, it was largely an appalling place to live. 

Teen girls were routinely sent to “The Mag,” as it was often called, for a wide range of reasons, not all of them criminal. In June, 1890, 17-year-old Mission resident Arabella Allen was arrested and sent to the asylum by her parents because she’d fallen in love with a local gang leader, Patrick Shea, and planned to marry him, according to a San Francisco Examiner article written at the time. That same month, May Hurley and Maggie Harrington were arrested by San Francisco police and sent to the asylum for living in an Eddy Street apartment with “five hoodlums,” the San Francisco Call reported. 

For most of its residents, the Mag was nothing more than a prison, where inmates were forced to work long hours, essentially serving as slave labor for the asylum and the nuns who ran it.

As San Francisco’s population skyrocketed after the Gold Rush, from 850 in 1848 to 300,000 in 1890, it struggled to quickly shed its lawless, Wild West reputation and become a respectable and civilized city. But doing so meant putting some of its most vulnerable residents — orphaned, abused, impoverished or runaway teens — behind bars. 

Among the throngs of newcomers arriving in 1854 with fantasies of striking it rich was a group of Irish nuns from the Sisters of Mercy, according to Katherine Moran, an author working on a book about the history of the asylum. On the nuns’ first morning in San Francisco, Mother Mary de Sales Reddan reportedly threw a medal into the muddy streets, and claimed the Gold Rush on behalf of the Virgin Mary, Moran said. 

The core values of the international Sisters of Mercy organization include service, social justice and forging relationships in communities, and the nuns who came to San Francisco in the 1850s were no different. They bought San Francisco’s original county hospital in 1855 and ran it for a couple of years, then founded St. Mary’s Hospital, originally on Stockton Street. In 1858, they also took over operations for the San Francisco Pesthouse, an isolation ward for locals with highly contagious diseases like smallpox and cholera, located on 26th Street near De Haro Street. 

They founded the Magdalen Asylum in 1856, and first operated it as a refuge for sex workers, according to an article by Daniel Macallair, a criminal justice professor at San Francisco State University. But in 1868, it began taking in girls who’d been sentenced to the city’s Industrial School — no school at all, but the city’s first juvenile prison, and a labor camp where boys were forced to till and tend the facility’s 100-acre farm. 

Magdalen Asylums — institutions that got their name from Mary Magdalen, the prostitute redeemed by Christ — have a long history. Originally run by Protestant organizations, they began to proliferate in England, Scotland and Wales in the mid-18th century, and by the 1760s they’d taken hold in Ireland. Over time, they became increasingly run by Catholic groups. Touted as loving, but perhaps stern, homes where “wayward” girls could receive an education and reform their lives. The reality was very different.

Industrial School girls

San Francisco Industrial School, illustrated in 1871. It stood near the intersection of today’s San Jose and Ocean avenues, on the City College of San Francisco property. While boys lived and worked here, girls lived and worked in the Magdalen Asylum.

In June, 1891, 15-year-old Adelaide Martin was arrested for stealing jewelry from a woman she was living with, and likely working for as a domestic servant. She was sentenced to the Magdalen Asylum, and not for the first time. She was previously released at her father’s request, but “Failed to keep her promise to reform,” according to the San Francisco Call, which called her “Young, But Troublesome.”

Born in California, Hannah died March 10, 1872, of tuberculosis. According to city burial records, she was laid to rest in the Magdalen Asylum cemetery. But she isn’t mentioned in the asylum’s burial records.

Local newspapers of the era regularly reported on teen girls sentenced to the Magdalen Asylum. Articles typically included the girls’ full names, along with commentary on how attractive they were. Although some girls, like Martin, had committed real crimes, many others were sentenced just for leading “an idle and dissolute life,” according to Mccallair. 

Often, parents asked local courts to send their “incorrigible,” “uncontrollable” daughters to the asylum to be reformed. Other times, teen girls would be picked up by the police for “vagrancy” (homelessness), for hanging out with “hoodlums” (teen boys), for stealing small items from wealthy houses where they worked as live-in servants, or for living and working in “houses of ill repute” (brothels). Many were orphans.

Once inside, their identities were stripped away; many were given pseudonyms. Eight-year-old Mary de Lex, for example, who was sent to the asylum in 1866 after her parents divorced, was renamed “Nellie.” Seventeen-year-old orphan Mary Sweet was called “Josephine,” according to the Magdalen Asylum’s inmate registers. 

They slept in large, congregate dormitories, with beds lined up in long rows, the head of one against the foot of the next, according to Macallair. A nun was assigned to sleep in each dormitory. The girls were awakened at 5:30 a.m. (6 a.m. in the winter) and worked all day. Bedtime was 9 p.m. 

“Training at the Magdalen Asylum involved long hours of sewing in the facility’s workshop. The Magdalen Asylum was dependent on inmate labor, particularly after 1876, when the Asylum lost its state appropriation due to legislation barring state aid to religious organizations,” Macallair writes. “Initially, the Asylum was dependent on charitable donations and proceeds from the sale of ‘needlework.’ Later, a sewing workshop was installed where the girls manufactured household linen, ladies’ wearing apparel, and embroidery work.”

Particularly in Ireland, Magdalene Asylums earned much of their income by running industrial laundry operations, with inmates as the labor force, which earned them the moniker of “Magdalene Laundries.” (It’s not clear why some U.S. asylums dropped the “e” in Magdalene.) The last of the laundries, located in Waterford City, Ireland, shut down in 1996. Irish survivors report that they had their hair cut short, were forbidden from speaking, and were beaten for any minor infraction. 

While it doesn’t appear that laundry was the Magdalen Asylum’s main source of income in San Francisco, there is a reference to it in the institutional register. “When the Census was taken on the 1st June, 1880, there were 197 inmates, exclusive of the Sisters and the Employees in the Laundry, but including Penitents and Industrial School Girls,” an unnamed nun wrote. “Total during the year, 270.”

These “Industrial School girls,” all of whom lived and worked at the Magdalen Asylum, were understandably disruptive and rebellious. They were teens, and many of them had been “rescued” by police and nuns from independence, only to be held against their will. When the girls became too resistant, they were locked in isolation cells or deprived of food, according to Macallair. “The isolation cells were installed on the urging of local authorities and were located in the basement of the institution. The cells had large iron doors and locks ‘as big as a football.’”

These imprisoned girls had a few ways of getting out of the asylum: They could serve out the term recommended by the court. They could turn 18, at which point their parents or another responsible caregiver could petition the court for their release (sometimes, however, parents forgot, and girls remained in the asylum until they were 19 or 20). Once released, some girls married older men in an attempt to dodge future stints in the asylum, as married girls came under the jurisdiction of their husbands first, and the courts second. Unfortunately, some of them soon discovered that their new husbands only wanted to sell them into sex work and reap a portion of the profits. Stories retelling all of the above ran in local newspapers in the late 19th century.

Newspaper clipping from the San Francisco Chronicle, September 9, 1890.

And, despite bars on the windows, some inmates ran away. One girl tried to escape by jumping out of a high window in the four-story building, and was found “senseless” on the ground the next morning, according to Moran’s research.

In 1890, 17-year-old Lillian Baldwin, suffering from a skin disease, was sent from the Magdalen Asylum to the City and County Hospital next door, according to the Chronicle. Once there, she saw an opportunity. Baldwin climbed out a bathroom window and “must have climbed the [very high] wall surrounding the hospital grounds,” the newspaper reported.

St. Michael’s Cemetery

Detail of the Magdalen Asylum property and St. Michael’s Cemetery (outlined in yellow) from the 1889 Sanborn Fire Insurance maps of San Francisco.

Though most of the women and girls at the Magdalen Asylum tried to get away as soon as they could, for the Sisters of Mercy it was a permanent home. They lived there full time, and many died there, too, institutional records show. The asylum grounds included a small cemetery called St. Michael’s, once located on the slope behind the building. Given that some of the Irish laundries hid mass graves of women and even babies, this burial ground deserves a closer look. 

According to a Chronicle reporter who toured the asylum in December of 1871, the asylum’s “city of the dead” was surrounded by trees and a high fence. As he and his nun tour guide entered through a small gate, he saw a gravel pathway and a number of nuns’ graves, each marked “a wooden cross bearing the name in religion of the dead.” In another section of the burial ground “are the graves of the penitent women who died in the asylum.”

Sisters of Mercy records for the asylum include the names of 69 nuns, along with seven “consecrates” — asylum residents who dedicated themselves to the Sisters and lived the rest of their lives at Magdalen — as well as five secular women who somehow got permission to be buried on the grounds. 

But there’s at least one other resident unaccounted for: a 12-year-old Native American girl named in the asylum register as Hannah Providence, and in San Francisco burial records only as Hannah. Born in California, she died March 10, 1872, of tuberculosis. According to city burial records, she was laid to rest in the Magdalen Asylum cemetery. But she isn’t mentioned in the asylum’s burial records.

Mothers, wives and sisters

While many of the Mag’s residents were sentenced there by local courts, others sought care or refuge in the asylum under a wide range of circumstances. Maria Kennedy (“Emma”), an unmarried 33-year-old native of Kilkenny, Ireland, was sent to the Sisters by an authority in Sacramento while her two children were shipped to an orphanage in San Rafael. Kennedy arrived pregnant and partially paralyzed, and the Magdalen Sisters sent her to St. Mary’s hospital for care. Both she and her baby died, according to the asylum register. 

Many local men checked their wives into the asylum, sometimes for mental health or addiction issues noted in the register. Other times, no reason was given. In mid-November, 1869, 34-year-old  Mrs. Murphy, nicknamed “Christina” by the nuns, was checked in by her husband for the fourth time. He took her out again on January 19, 1870. She missed Thanksgiving and Christmas with her husband and family. 

In some instances, San Francisco’s Magdalen Asylum became a place where women and girls found their religious calling. At least seven Magdalen Asylum residents dedicated their lives to the Catholic Church after living in the institution, taking new names like Mary of the Sacred Heart and Mary of the Passion, according to the register. Many of them are also noted in the asylum’s burial records. 

Despite its punitive, abusive treatment of the teens sentenced to stay here, “The Magdalen Asylum seems to have functioned … as a refuge for some women facing sex trafficking, abuse, abandonment, or poverty; [and] an employment agency for those seeking domestic laborers,” Moran said in an interview with the Cushwa Center at the University of Notre Dame. 

Indeed, the Magdalen Asylum occasionally received positive reviews — even of its carceral program. In 1890, a San Francisco Civil Grand Jury reported on the deplorable conditions for boys incarcerated at the Industrial School, but gave the girls’ facility at the asylum high marks. The Grand Jury called the Industrial school a “failure” as a boys’ reformatory institution, noting that older, more criminally minded teens were housed with younger, more innocent boys, “contaminating” them, and that the school was “merely a graduating school” for the nearby jail. However, about its sister institution, the Grand Jury said, “It would be impossible to speak of the Magdalen Asylum … in terms of too high praise.” 

In an 1897 article, in which several girls accused the matron of the City Prison of stealing their belongings, such as jewelry, purses and gloves, some of the girls spoke favorably of the Magdalen Asylum — at least, in comparison to the prison.   

Final years

In the early 1900s, the Magdalen Asylum became known as St. Catherine’s Home for Wayward Girls, though it continued to operate in much the same way until 1931. That year, the city purchased the property for $325,000 to transform it into two facilities in much the same spirit as their predecessor: a unit for the mentally ill and a maternity hospital, according to newspaper accounts. They would become part of San Francisco General Hospital, which opened in its current spot on Potrero Avenue in 1872. Today, SFGH’s Behavioral Health Center stands on the Magdalen Asylum property, according to hospital documents. 

When St. Catherine’s closed, the girls in its care were turned over to the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who ran the University Mound Training School, north of John McLaren Park in San Francisco, which was dedicated to the “rehabilitation and protection of young girls from dangerous environments,” the Chronicle reported in 2003. In San Francisco today, the Good Shepherd Sisters run an addiction-rehab program in the same spot. 

The city also ordered the Sisters to disinter and remove all of the graves in St. Michael’s Cemetery, according to asylum records. The 69 nuns, seven consecrates and five lay women were all dug up and moved, most of them to a congregate grave in Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. 

ZSFGH’s Behavioral Health buildings, on the former Magdalen Asylum property, as seen on Google Maps.

In the early 1990s, as construction of the SFGH Behavioral Health Center got underway, some officials worried that workers might find remains from the cemetery, according to the Chronicle. All they found was a handle from one of the nun’s caskets. A 1990 archaeological report from the San Francisco Planning Department concluded that it was unlikely that any graves remained on the property, particularly after boring several test holes into the ground in 1987, according to city archaeologist Kari Hervey-Lentz. 

All that remains of the Catholic institution is a Lourdes Grotto, built in 1912 and dedicated to Mary Magdalene, which was restored during construction of the Behavioral Health Center. Today it stands between the BHC building and Potrero Avenue, surrounded by trees and draped in green ivy. But the space for the statue of Mary sits empty, and the cave-like central hollow and its stone altar are barricaded with metal fencing and orange plastic mesh. Hospital spokespeople said it was initially barricaded after a pane of glass near the Grotto broke, to protect visitors from the shards. “A replacement pane of glass is delayed due to supply chain related issues; we are reviewing the continued need of the barricade,” spokesman Noel Sanchez wrote in an email. In the early 2000s, the Chronicle reported that homeless people occasionally slept in it and lit candles. 

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Beth Winegarner

COPY EDITOR. Beth Winegarner is a Bay Area native who’s lived in San Francisco since 2004, and she’s in the Mission at least once a week. She’s written for local publications like the SF Weekly, San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco magazine, as well as the New Yorker, the Guardian, Wired, Mother Jones and others. Her favorite tacos and alambres come from El Farolito.

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  1. I was a registered nurse at the behavioral health center for many years. I was first hired wayback in 1999. I don’t know about this dark history, thank you so much. I shared this article to my previous colleagues.

  2. Very interesting history of early San Francisco. As a native, I always enjoy learning about the City’s past. Thank you for a well written, informative article. I eagerly await more great stories like this one.