Coronavirus has turned MacKillop House from a convent for nuns to a refuge for homeless women in Canberra

It has been 50 years since Noelene Quinane walked the hallowed halls of MacKillop House in Canberra’s inner north as a young nun.

She came to the home for Josephite Sisters to study for two years when it first opened in 1969.

Now, its cosy rooms host a new generation of Canberra women — ones who do not wear the habit or attend daily prayers.

Living in rental stress, suffering abuse, or struggling with mental illness or addiction, these women are teetering on the edge of the poverty line.

Many have been displaced by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Sister Noelene has returned to make them chilli and cheese scones, using her late mum’s spatula. 

“For some strange reason I’ve become known as the scone lady,” she laughed.

“I enjoy making them. If it gives pleasure to people, that’s a gift. A gift both ways.”

A woman inspects some dough on a spatula, with various ingredients and tools for making scones laid out before her.
Sister Noelene Quinane says she is known as “the scone lady” to the women living at MacKillop House due to COVID-19.(ABC News: Greg Nelson)

Sister Noelene travelled abroad to teach and act as a principal — as well as a stint at the Smokey Mountain landfill site in the Philippines — before word of the shelter called her back home.

“When this possibility of housing COVID homeless women became a reality with the support of the government funding, it just lifted my heart,” she said.

Three nuns crouch with buckets in a yard, working or playing at gardening.
MacKillop House has long been a home for women who had come to Canberra to study, first for Josephite nuns.(Supplied: MacKillop House)

Demand growing for homelessness services amid pandemic

The shelter opened just in time for Canberra’s bitterly cold winter — and it is one of the ACT’s only spaces designed to house women.

Fast-tracked by an injection of money from the ACT Government, MacKillop House is part of the $3 million emergency housing response to COVID-19.

It has beds for up to 26 homeless women, including those with children, and following the initial six-month trial, that could be expanded to 38 beds.

The most recent census recorded 1,700 homeless Canberrans, and half are living in supported accommodation like the convent — and that was before coronavirus.

Women and children are among the hardest hit by the coronavirus downturn; between mid-March and mid-April, 55 per cent of the jobs lost were held by women.

CatholicCare is expecting more calls for help as JobKeeper payments are wound back.

“Homelessness can happen to anyone, and that’s really been highlighted with this pandemic and the economic crisis that’s followed,” CatholicCare Canberra CEO Anne Kirwan said.

“Women might come to the service because they’ve suffered financial hardship, mental health issues, or drug and alcohol issues.”

Because the convent is well-known locally, it is not the best place to cater for victims of domestic violence, who need to remain anonymous.

Instead, the most likely candidates are the growing population of women over 50 affected by homelessness, and they can stay at the convent for up to a year.

“They just like the idea that you’re around, because it shows you’re here for them, somebody is here for them, and they matter,” Sister Noelene said.

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