Also known as Santa Maria Maddalena, Le Convertite is a former church and convent on Giudecca that now houses a women's prison.
One of two churches in Venice dedicated to Mary Magdalene, this church was part of a religious complex founded in the 16th century. In addition to the church and the convent, it included a hospice for fallen women/prostitutes who had repented or had nowhere else to go.
A truly gruesome story about this convent is recounted in much detail in Mary Laven’s "Virgins of Venice." In a nutshell, a priest named Giovanni Pietro Leon used the women who lived in this convent as his personal harem. There were 400 nuns here at that time and unlike the noble-born nuns at San Zaccaria and other Venetian convents, these women were poor and had no help from outside. They were truly prisoners at the mercy of this priest, who not only raped the girls but drowned the babies of the ones unlucky enough to get pregnant by him. Many of the nuns committed suicide during this reign of terror. Evidently this priest was a well-educated con artist who convinced the Venetian aristocracy and representatives from Rome of his piety and good intentions, and he got away with it for 20 years. But he was finally exposed and executed in Piazza San Marco in 1561. I couldn’t help but think about those nuns when I visited this church last year.
At one time, this church had a painting by Albrecht Durer but it was removed when the complex was suppressed by Napoleon in the early 19th century. For a while, the place was a military hospital and then in 1857, it became a women’s prison which it still is today. Another former religious complex in Venice (Santa Maria Maggiore) is now a men’s prison.
Secret Venice has a funny article about the weekly vegetable market held at Le Convertite. The inmates have an organic garden and raise produce to sell. Evidently, the local Venetian lady shoppers are wildly enthusiastic about making sure they get the perfect eggplant, and shopping at the prison market can be quite an experience. There’s also a store called Banco N. 10 in Castello (on Salizada Sant'Antonin) that sells hand-bags and clothing made by these prisoners.
There's a strange little story on Venice Blog about how in 2003, someone left a pizza box outside this prison and created an enormous uproar.
Wide open doors to the women's prison facility. Seriously, I could have walked right in!