Arts

How story of 'The nun in a nightgown' inspired Co Down woman's book

When a nun ran away from a convent in her nightdress, she sparked off a controversy which placed Catholic and Protestant churches in Australia at loggerheads. Downpatrick woman Maureen McKeown tells Joanne Sweeney why she was compelled to write the story of her great aunt

Maureen McKeown from Downpatrick whose book, The Extraordinary Case of Sister Liguori, tells the tale of her great-aunt's story as a nun in Australia Picture: Bill Smyth

WHEN a young Irish nun fled her convent one foggy winter night dressed only in her nightgown, she could not have known the series of extraordinary events she was to spark in Australia's religious history – including her demanding that a bishop publicly apologise for dismissing her as mad.

Nor could the escapee, Brigid Partridge, have known that this bizarre turn of events in her life could inspire a relative, who she would never meet, to ensure that she was never forgotten.

In her despair, Brigid turned to a local Protestant minister and his wife for help and was harboured secretly in their home, while her bishop had her declared insane for running away. Later, a warrant was issued for her arrest and a major search undertaken to find her as the story fanned sectarian flames in Australia in the 1920s.

The tale of the young Co Kildare woman, later known as Sister Liguori, has been a source of fascination for her great niece, Downpatrick woman Maureen McKeown.

Maureen has now written her first self-published book, The Extraordinary Case of Sister Liguori, as a first-person narrative about her relative's amazing flight and her legal battle with the Catholic Church, which was chronicled in newspapers in New South Wales as 'The Nun in the Gown' story.

The-mother-of-five explains that her great-aunt's story is one that both instantly gripped her and helped to get her through some dark periods in her own life as well. Maureen was traumatised for years after suffering a heart attack when armed masked men tied her and her daughters up during a burglary at their home in 2007. Five years later she was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) after noticing some symptoms while she was working on her exhaustive research into Sr Liguori's story.

"Brigid Partridge was my great aunt on my father's side and was a sister of his mother who was a very devout Catholic and was raised in a very traditional religious way along with her sister and brothers," Maureen tells me.

"I was fascinated from the moment I came across my great aunt’s story. In 2011, I was doing some historical research on her brother, who I did actually meet, and I happened to Google his name one day. Up flashed up a wee article in the internet from a newspaper in Wagga Wagga in New South Wales on The Nun in the Nightgown, which was about my great aunt and I was so surprised to learn about her.

"We were aware that there was a nun in my dad's family who then went to Australia but that was all. The story of Brigid was probably lost down the family line due to the scandal that was attached to her – and it definitely would have been viewed as a scandal then.

"Today she would have been seen as a gutsy young woman who needed to escape from the life that she didn’t want to have to put up with. And she was prepared to fight for an apology from the bishop.

"From that moment I learnt about her, I was hooked. I just couldn’t let it go and was determined to find out all about her story."

Brigid, who was from Newbridge, Co Kildare, joined an Irish convent at the age if 17 and left, as many members of religious orders did in those days, for a new life on the other side of the world.

Despite being only educated to the age of 14, she went to work as a teaching nun for the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Wagga Wagga, then a remote small town, now a provincial city of 55,000 in New South Wales.

As Maureen explains, she believes that it was the ending of her work as a teacher which led to the nun's disaffection with her life and her eventual escape from the convent.

"She was given a bad assessment as a teacher and the Mother Superior effectively demoted her and make her do the refractory duties like cleaning for two years. I think she felt demoralised after having the status of being a teacher nun," she says.

The Protestant minister and his wife refused to disclose the nun's whereabouts to the Catholic Church, leading to the issue of a warrant for Sr Liguori and sparking a media storm in Australia. She was eventually found in the couple's home in Sydney and was declared legally sane in court soon after.

However, supported by the local Orange Order, she went on to take the bishop to court to demand an apology for saying she was mad.

"Wagga Wagga was completely divided in two. The Protestant side was protecting her and keeping her away from the Catholics because she knew that if she went back, she would be returned to the convent," Maureen says.

"I was totally stunned by the sectarianism I discovered that was going on in Australia at that time as well."

Sr Liguori never got her public apology but neither did she ever return to her religious life.

Maureen has been researching and writing her great aunt's story for six years, and in addition to travelling to Australia to see the nun's former convent and where the events all unfolded, she has invested several thousand pounds for the book to be published. But writing it has also given a lot back to her.

She says of impact of the armed robbery: "Because of those so and so's, everywhere I went, I saw masked men in my head. Without realising it, I think that I was doing the research as a means of distraction.

"I became so totally absorbed in the story that I couldn’t let it be and just had to write it. I had to convince myself that I could write a book as I'm not a writer and I’ve never attempted to write a book before.

"And it was devastating to learn about my Motor Neurone diagnosis – but, again, the first thing that kept me going was that wee story and I thought, I’m going to see that to the end."

:: The Extraordinary Case of Sister Liguori by Maureen McKeown will be available from September 7 from Waterstones and on Amazon and Kindle, priced £8.99.

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