But today, many of those who were in the sisters' care have come forward to claim that, behind the locked doors of Nazareth House (all the homes had this name), the nuns maintained a ruthless regime. Beatings and acts of extreme cruelty were commonplace, they say, and together with the spartan existence in the home, gave them lives of utter misery.
More than 400 former residents are planning to sue the order over what they claim was cruel, unnecessary and harmful treatment suffered at the hands of the Sisters.
The allegations stretch back as far as 50 years and are as recent as the 1970s. Claims of abuse have been made about homes run by the order in places including Newcastle upon Tyne, Plymouth, Swansea, Manchester and Sunderland.
Police are also investigating after lawyers representing former residents passed on relevant files.
So far, the Poor Sisters of Nazareth have refused to comment, but it is believed that the allegations will be contested vigorously.
Many of those alleging physical, and to some extent sexual, abuse are now elderly people who say their entire lives have been affected by what they endured as children. Their accounts of life in the various homes have a common theme: of thrashings even for the most minor misdemeanour or failing, be it sneezing, wetting the bed, or forgetting the words of a hymn.
Above all, they tell of a complete lack of love in institutions where bewildered children could not comprehend why they were being treated in such a way or why their families had left them in the hands of the nuns.
In the words of one man who had been put into a home after being abandoned by his family: "Some people say to me, 'Well, that's what it was like everywhere then', but it wasn't. I went to a strict local school and the belt was used frequently, but nothing like on the same scale that the nuns used to beat us.
"It could happen for any thing, any time of the night or day. They would use canes, sticks, the leather belts around their waists. You could be hit for talking in church. For messing about in church. For being late for prayer.
"Looking back, I think one of the reasons was that the nuns weren't happy and decided we damn well weren't going to be either. My time there has deeply affected my life. I've never found it easy forming relationships and had periods when I've had to go to hospital and had all sorts of problems."
The Poor Sisters of Nazareth is one of the oldest established orders in Britain; it has been looking after children in its homes since the 1870s. It is also a powerful order across the world, and its published accounts show it is worth pounds 154m.
Allegations of abuse by its nuns first surfaced in Scotland last year. Dozens of former residents of homes in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Midlothian and Kilmarnock claimed they had suffered vicious beatings and sexual abuse.
Then, in March, a shocking report was published into allegations of abuse and brutality at one of the order's homes in Queensland, Australia, over a 90-year period ending only in 1976. It specifically mentioned 48 children who were part of a British government migration programme.
The scathing report, by Professor Bruce Grundy of Queensland University, told of how one girl, Helen Carter, had her legs burnt with a red-hot poker, to exorcise the Devil, while another child almost lost her legs which became infected after a nun pulled out her ingrowing toenails with pliers.
Yet another was scarred after being scalded by a nun who accused her of not using enough hot water when washing. To hide injuries from visitors, children were shut into a "black hole" without bedding, ventilation or light.
"Ruthless and sadistic madness on the part of least some of the nuns and a depthless depravity on the part of some of the men ... are the defining characteristics of at least some of those who ran the orphanage," wrote Professor Grundy.
"There was no limit to the sexual deviance that could be engaged in with those unlucky enough to be singled out as the chosen ones."
Professor Grundy reserved his most scathing words for the police forces and bureaucrats, who he said may have known what was going on but did nothing to stop it.
VERA AND JEAN
FOR Vera Willshire, who is now 75, the year 1939 was one of the happiest of her life. That was when her main tormentor at the Nazareth House in Middlesbrough, Sister Laurence, died.
Vera lived at the home with her two sisters from the age of six months until she was 17 years old.
"I don't think I saw Sister Laurence ever smile. She hated children and was always hitting us with a cricket stump she carried around.
"She especially hated me. Once I was beaten black and blue, so badly I had to stay in the infirmary for five weeks, and when I came out I was given a bag of sweets and told to tell no one about what happened. An aunt who came to visit was told I was confined with an infection.
"Bedwetting was about the worst thing you could do. The punishment was being forced to stand in front of a nun's cell with the soiled linen on your head or being sat in the galvanized steel bath while two assistants poured buckets of cold water over your head. I was terrified the whole time and never had a happy day there.
"When the Sister died, we were told to pray for her in Heaven, but we all prayed that we were glad.
"You were thrashed about the feet, head and hands, you had your hair pulled and your head bounced off the walls.
"There were two slices of bread and dripping for breakfast, a ladle of soup at dinner and two more slices of bread and dripping in the evening. At Christmas there was jam. The nuns were terrible."
Jean Guerrier, like her sister, Vera Willshire, recalls the regime at the Nazareth House in Middlesbrough as unrelentingly brutal and frightening.
Mrs Guerrier, who is now 73 and lives in Tottenham, north London, said: "The nuns were extremely harsh. Not a day went by without someone getting a battering. They would just use anything that came to hand.
"Looking back, I think they really despised the children. They were always calling us guttersnipes or scavengers and seemed to enjoy humiliating us. There was real hate there. I was never so happy as when I left that place, but it's stayed with me ever since.
"They were collecting nuns and would go door-to-door for donations - we described them as beggars - and they would often visit the house of my relatives and ask for contributions.
"I left the faith as a direct result and don't describe myself as a Catholic anymore. I believe in God, though".
IN THE early Seventies, six-year-old Simon Taylor (not his real name) was admitted to Nazareth House in Middlesbrough after his mother had a nervous breakdown. Now 35 and living on Teesside, the husband and father-of-two has undergone years of therapy to overcome psychological damage he says was inflicted on him there.
"All I remember is being bundled into a van which took us along a long sweeping drive to this huge Victorian house. Terrified, I remember holding out my hand thinking an adult would take it. No one did and I was just told to follow on.
"The dormitory would sleep 12. It was a very spartan regime. I spent a lot of time scrubbing floors or cleaning shoes. We rose at 5am, did the cleaning chores, then got dressed, got breakfast and then went to school. Though it was three miles away and there was a school bus, we were only given enough money to make the journey once a day, so depending on the weather we'd take it in the morning or afternoon. There was a constant atmosphere of fear, and beatings all the time. I was terrified 24 hours a day. The only subject of conversation was who was for it next.
"You couldn't talk to the nuns in a jokey or friendly way. They were like prison officers. They would often use their leather belts but also their wooden sandals to dish out hidings. You could get beaten for nothing at all. If you were scrubbing the floor and looked up you could get a whack over the head or even be kneed in the face.
"I began wetting the bed and this was seen as a dreadful crime. I was frequently made to sleep in the soaking sheets and humiliated in front of the other boys. Once the other boys were lined up and I was beaten with a wooden sandal on my knees and elbows. It was only later I realised that you didn't bruise so badly there.
I think my time there has left deep scars. No one would believe how bad it was. That is why I want to take them to court."
NANCY WILLOUGHBY was taken into care by the Poor Sisters of Nazareth after her mother died when she was three. She lived at Nazareth House homes in Newcastle and Carlisle until she was 13, in 1944.
"One cold winter's morning at about 6.30, when I was about 11, I was kneeling in church saying my prayers when I sneezed. A helper, a big 20-year-old girl, dragged me to the washroom. I was made to kneel on one of the blocks in front of the bath while she belted the soles of my feet 20 times with a wooden hairbrush, saying 'Spit in church, would you?' with all the other girls looking on.
"My feet were so badly swollen I was kept off school for three days and two other girls had to join hands to carry me up and down the stairs. Not once did the nuns ask why I was off school or what was wrong with me. Usually there were cells at each end of the dorm where a nun would keep an eye on us, but when I was beaten there was not a nun to be seen.
"But girls were beaten every day. There was nothing unusual about it. The atmosphere was one of sheer terror. It was bad enough in Newcastle, but after the war broke out we were moved to Carlisle where it was much more cruel.
"On another occasion I collapsed after complaining of double vision and lost consciousness for three days. Instead of fetching a doctor they kept me in bed and surrounded me with hot water bottles. One of these burst and burnt my foot badly, leaving a permanent scar. It gives a good idea of the standard of care.
"We were skivvies, basically. We did all the work in the convent, cleaning the windows, scrubbing floors, doing the laundry and washing out the bathrooms.
"Most of the nuns were Irish and though they were trained to be nuns they were not trained to look after kids, and that is where a lot of the problems were. They were not battleaxes or crones. Many were young and pretty, and though maybe they were kind in their first few weeks, they soon became much the same as the rest.
"Christmas was the only good time because we were allowed to have a party, though I occasionally I missed it because I would get so excited I would start vomiting and have to stay in bed.
"I left when I was 13 with a terrible stammer that I am sure must have been because of living in fear of the nuns. My aunt said I never stammered before I went there.
"The only thing I learned to do there was fight, and when I come across a nun today I avoid them because I cannot be civil. It was a dreadful experience and I will never forget it.
"I approached a lawyer because I learned that it was being said that if there were problems in any Nazareth House homes it was only in Scotland. I thought bugger that, I'm saying my piece."
BERYL HITCHEN, 55, was dumped on the doorstep of the Nazareth House in Cardiff when she was not quite two years old. Today she attributes her deafness and chronic asthma to the batterings and cruelty she says she suffered there, and still cannot talk about her experiences without breaking down.
"I remember being told repeatedly by the nuns that I had been put there because I was naughty and because my family did not want me.
"The nuns never believed I was deaf. When I couldn't make out what they were saying they thought I was being cheeky and I got slapped and punched a lot. This definitely made it much worse.
"You could get hammered for anything. I remember being made to sit in a cold bath. I was up at 5am scrubbing floors, doing laundry. It was work, work, work. There was church every day of the week. I was in bed by 7pm and they used to check you were asleep with your hands across your chest. If not you got another whacking.
"One of the worst things that ever happened to me was being locked in a cupboard as a punishment. Before pushing me in the nuns told me there was a mouse in there and I went totally hysterical. To this day I cannot go into a loft or a small room and I sleep with the light on because of that.
"Holidays were spent at other Nazareth House homes. I remember we all did not want to leave the home in Brecon because the nuns there were so kind.
"When I left [the Cardiff home] at 18 I was just handed a suitcase with hardly anything in it and shown the door. No goodbyes.
"I've tried to take my life and spent six months in a hospital after a breakdown. I blame Nazareth House.
"I had three sons with my second husband. Today I have all the soft cuddly toys I want, a room full of them. Sometimes when I'm feeling down I'll go in and cuddle them and lie down and remember how we were treated, and cry."Reuse content