Hard times and healing

CATHARTIC ART: Wellington-based writer Hinemoana Baker has returned to a distressing site of her father’s childhood to write a book of poetry.
CATHARTIC ART: Wellington-based writer Hinemoana Baker has returned to a distressing site of her father’s childhood to write a book of poetry.

For some, former Nelson Catholic boys' school Sunnybank was a place of loneliness and horrors. Recently, Wellington writer Hinemoana Baker visited the school with her father, and is turning his ghastly memories into poetry. Naomi Arnold reports.

One of the things Val Baker remembers most clearly about his time at Sunnybank is the duck pond. The nuns would throw him and the other boys into it every time they tried to run away.

He remembers the rotting weed and how, after the nuns had dragged him out, they made him stand in the quad and ordered the other boys to hose him down with a firehose. He was just eight years old.

DECADES ON: A  1993 photograph of former schoolboys at the Sunnybank 50th anniversary reunion.
Nelson Mail
DECADES ON: A 1993 photograph of former schoolboys at the Sunnybank 50th anniversary reunion.

The pond is filled in now, and llamas graze on the site. Baker is 76. But that didn't stop the difficult memories coming back when his daughter - writer, musician, and teacher Hinemoana Baker - took him up to the property at Wakapuaka last month for his first look around since he left in the early 1950s.

They walked the hills, looked at his old dormitory, and visited the sites where he suffered so badly after his father sent him and his four brothers to live there in 1949, a few years after their mother died.

The property is called Garindale now, and has a new life as a backpackers and long-stay accommodation complex, and a new future as a wedding venue.

LONG GONE: The former chapel at Sunnybank, now Garindale.
LONG GONE: The former chapel at Sunnybank, now Garindale.

But the weatherboard building, the old vicar's house, and the outbuildings retain an imposing presence as you head up the driveway on a steep hillside near the Glen, about 10km northeast of Nelson city. Two weathered white crosses still perch on the roof of the main building.

Although Val Baker didn't want to share his experiences in person with the Nelson Mail, he has shared them with his daughter, who is turning them into art.

"He says he felt very confused and sad," she says of their visit. "There was no big breakdown or anything when he walked on to the place, but he has pretty much unequivocally bad memories."

"One nun in particular was hard on her father, and her weapon of choice was a Singer sewing machine belt - leather, solid yet pliable, and whip-thin."

"It was just perfect for her purposes," Hinemoana Baker says.

One day, her father stole the belt, took it to the cowsheds and cut it up into little pieces. He was handing them out to the other boys, "like little bits of liquorice", when the nun came around the corner of the building swinging a new belt, slapping it against her habit.

"He can still remember the sound. You can imagine that didn't end so happily."

She has heard her father's stories for most of her life. "Not particularly happy ones. But compelling - very compelling.

"It was good for me to come here and experience the place for myself."

Hinemoana Baker is a former Waimea College head girl, and recently spent a month back in Nelson, working on turning her father's memories into a book.

It's the main focus of her year as writer in residence at Victoria University's prestigious International Institute of Modern Letters, and it's a project she has wanted to do for a long time.

Sunnybank was one of three children's homes in the Nelson region under the blanket of St Mary's, a Catholic institution that ran Manuka St (1872-1945), Stoke Industrial School, Ngawhatu Valley (1886-1910) and Sunnybank.

Sunnybank operated almost self-sufficiently on 18 hectares of agricultural land from the 1940s until the late 1980s. As a Nelson Photo News story of September 1963 described it, five Sisters of the Mission and a priest tended to the material, educational and spiritual needs of up to 50 boys aged between 5 and 15, not to mention 13 milking cows and a flock of sheep.

All eyes on the teacher: Lessons in the Sunnybank classroom.

It was not strictly an orphanage; the Photo News pointed out that most of the boys there were from "broken homes".

"As was often the way in those days, my father's dad didn't feel like he could look after five young boys on his own and also work," Baker says.

"There were family around, but for some reason we think [my grandfather] wanted to keep the brothers together. I think a lot of people were in this situation."

Forcing the children to deal to troublemakers by hosing them down was typical of the "yucky dynamic" at institutions during those years, she says. "It isn't exclusive to the institutions, that church or even this country."

Val Baker left Sunnybank when he was 11 and went home to live with relatives in Foxton. He later excelled in rugby, playing for the Maori All Blacks in the early 1970s, and also became an expert squash player, golfer and scuba diving instructor - he still instructs today from his home in Matata, in the Bay of Plenty.

With the Matata police, he has created a youth marine education programme that has won praise for turning troubled young lives around.

"That love of scuba diving is kind of ironic when you think about the pond," his daughter says.

"He finds a lot of healing and solace in the sea. I think he would have been a very different person if he hadn't found that."

She felt the long-term effects of her father's time at Sunnybank strongly throughout her childhood.

"If you asked him now if it affected him, he would say yes, it did. But I think he has spent a lot of his life saying, ‘Never did me any harm'.

"I haven't known him all his life, but it certainly affected his parenting - without bagging him, he has had times of not being a great father. His version of discipline was pretty extreme at times.

"Finding out about what was done to them as children, everything just makes a hell of a lot of sense as to what he was like as a father to me and my sister, and as a husband to my mum.

"It wasn't great for a long time, and he was a very angry man. Consequently, all of us - my mum, sister and me - have had times of not having contact with him."

Baker says that as she and her father have grown older, they have been able to talk about that painful history, and they now enjoy a strong relationship.

"He's not denying any of this behaviour or this history. It's quite big for him, but at the same time it's my journey, mainly. He's just assisting me with it as he can, which is good of him. He could just tell me to bugger off."

Why bring it all up at all? She says it's partly a healing experience, but mostly it's simply time to tell the story. She's grateful that the writer's residency is enabling her to do so.

"I can't not. It's been haunting me for so long, and now I finally have a good space of time to be able to investigate it a bit, I feel like I can hopefully do a decent job."

Of Ngai Tahu, Ngati Raukawa, Ngati Toa, Te Ati Awa, English and Bavarian descent, Baker has lived in Wellington and Kapiti for 20 years, working and touring as a musician and writer. She's recorded five albums and published several books of poetry, and has appeared internationally at writers' festivals, book fairs and arts residencies.

She grew up in Whakatane and Nelson, and became head girl at Waimea College in 1985. She says she "wasn't the best-behaved head girl the college has ever had", but it was there that she developed her love of poetry, under English teacher Janet Hart. "I'm forever grateful to her for that."

She completed her MA in creative writing at the IIML in 2002, a year she describes as an inspirational hothouse for her writing.

To write her father's story, she's using material from her first-hand experience of modern-day Garindale, as well as archives from the Alexander Turnbull Library, photographs, personal memories and sound recordings. She's spoken with plenty of people around Nelson who remember their time at Sunnybank, too.

"I'm taking a wide view of it as well as a personal view, and trying to think what was happening in this region in terms of settlement, colonisation, the land, the original owners of this land. All of that will play into the final book, I hope.

"Just about everyone I speak to says, ‘I had a brother who went there' or ‘My uncle went there and has never been the same since'.

"There are a lot of stories that Dad laughs about, but they're not funny. These are worldwide."

Some of the archives held at Garindale tell similar stories of the pain and abuse that was routine in those days but would shock today.

Recently, Gary Wahlrich wrote of his time at Sunnybank in 1962, when he was 6.

"I never went home to my mother after a few weeks, as was said to me," he wrote. "For the next six years I curled into a tight hedgehog ball of fear and trepidation in expectation of what I would receive every day from this place [and] the nun who made my daily existence a living hell.

"Over the next six years I knew not one act of affection, whether by touch or word, from this place or the ‘well-intentioned adults'.

"I became a dissipated child . . . who feared the waking of each day, [who] was ostracised and belittled daily, no matter how hard he tried to please, or endeavoured to be invisible to his tormentor, who did what she did in the name of a loving God."

There was an investigation, and later, he and some of the other severely abused boys were removed, along with the perpetrators.

"When the walls eventually came tumbling down, [the nun] broke down weeping into her hands as she told the investigating priest ‘I did what I did because I loved the boys'."

But their bad experiences were not common to everyone.

Although Garindale's owners, Michael and Debbie Thomas, have seen grown men walk up the driveway and dissolve in tears - including one man who couldn't even enter the building - the visitors' book is peppered with the reminiscences of people who have good memories. A set of 50th anniversary reunion photos taken in 1993 shows a group of happy old men and a fine chocolate cake.

The Thomases bought the property in 2000 with Debbie Thomas' parents and her brother, who they bought out this year. The 27-bedroom complex has a licensed kitchen and bar, and they're working to turn it into a wedding and function venue.

They've worked for years in hospitality; they also own the award-winning Smugglers Pub and Cafe in Tahunanui, and used to own The Vic and Cafe Affair.

A sunny woman herself, Debbie Thomas enjoys talking about the rich history of Sunnybank, and meeting people who used to live there and hearing their stories.

"One of [the former boys] said if you were good, you got the nice nuns and were looked after, but if you were naughty, you got the bad ones," she says.

"Discipline was bad; they got held under water and locked in cupboards up in the roof. They all remember the nuns burying their toys under concrete slabs because someone wouldn't own up to something."

Some treasures of the old complex have gone now. A chapel once sat where there is now a garage and concrete pad. The Thomases are still looking for the old metal "Sunnybank" sign, which disappeared some time before they bought the property.

But the site retains its lofty aspect and glorious views, and is perfect for a party, with wide lawns and a little white trellis arch facing Tasman Bay.

Under the couple's plans, the old vicar's house, partly gutted at the moment, will become a reception hall, with unbroken 180-degree views across the horizon - the smooth green paddocks of the Glen, the flat blue expanse of the sea.

Hinemoana Baker says they're the perfect owners for a place that holds so many memories for so many people - good and bad.

"What I like about them is that they are really about what it was and what it's going to be, without trying to cover over everything; they just really solidly respect that history at the same time as moving on.

"They seem like absolutely the right people to take on a project like that. If it was me, I might be tempted to paper over [the history], because it's not pretty. But they really understand what went on there, and they don't see any barrier to their dream and their vision for the place."

If you have memories of Sunnybank or Garindale to share, email hinemoana@clear.net.nz.