The mysterious nun in the nightgown who fled her convent barefoot and afraid

The mysterious nun in the nightgown who fled her convent barefoot and afraid

11 October 2017

ON Saturday, August 7, 1920, two police detectives arrive at the home of a Congregational minister and his wife in suburban Sydney.

A young woman staying there, the target of the police search, slumps to the floor, cradled by the minister’s wife who assures her she has broken no law.

The frightened young woman in question is Brigid Partridge, a nun known as Sister Liguori. A couple of weeks earlier, on a foggy cold night, the unhappy nun fled the convent that had been her home for over a decade. Barefoot, she was dressed only in a nightgown.

Brigid’s arrest was the end of a run which saw her passed through several households who protected her in the midst of a religious and media storm.

The manner of her convent departure had led the local bishop to pursue a warrant for arrest. Brigid’s crime was supposedly being of unsound mind and when uncovered by police she was held on remand for medical observation. A week later she appeared before what was known as the ‘Lunacy Court’.

Declared sane, she was released. 

But Brigid had ignited the flames of sectarianism in 1920s Australia and it was only the start of the story. Next up was Brigid’s quest for a public apology from Bishop Joseph Dwyer himself.

The woman shining a light on Brigid’s extraordinary life is her great-niece Maureen McKeown. The Downpatrick woman thought she was conducting a simple family history search when an internet search brought up an article on the Sister Liguori scandal. 

Maureen had heard of an aunt who was a nun and left Ireland for Australia, but had no idea it connected to a story so well-known across Australia and New Zealand.

“It’s probably because it would have been seen as a scandal in Ireland,” says Maureen. “I had relatives who were devout Catholics. But I was totally fascinated by what I learned.

“I went to Australia, to Wagga Wagga in New South Wales where Brigid was based at the Mount Erin convent. Her life is a fantastic story. I thought, it almost reads like a novel.”

And a novel it is. Several years of research in a labour of love has resulted in the mother-of-five’s first book — ‘The Extraordinary Case of Sister Liguori’.

In the book, written from Brigid’s perspective, Maureen fleshes out the circumstances that precipitated her great-aunt’s night-time flit.

She paints a picture of a shy, dedicated, somewhat easily-led nun, who, having left her beloved family in County Kildare behind is initially happy with her lot. Subsequently sent to Australia by the church she is a teaching nun presented as capable and popular with the children she taught. But a bad day in front of a teaching inspector leads the convent to demote her to refectory duties. Two weeks turns into two years of hard labour that appears to take its toll physically and mentally.

Requests to return to her former duties are denied and feeling she has no real means of complaint, it leaves Brigid desperate. She wanders one day outside of the convent walls and somewhat tearfully calls at a stranger’s home. Her afternoon of tea and warm company by the fire is revealed and Brigid is sent back to the convent, seen by a doctor, and put to bed.

It’s here where the readers have to make up their own mind about what really happens next. Brigid is given a foul mixture to drink and her bed is sprayed with holy water. In her mind, it’s a scene reminiscent of death, and an ambiguous remark by a nun plays on her mind. Brigid fears she has been poisoned, makes herself sick, and makes her escape in her nightgown.

Later, when there is no apology from Bishop Dwyer for the arrest and slur on her character, Brigid turns to the courts for redress. But taking on the Bishop means taking on the Catholic Church.

On top of that, the population of Wagga Wagga was already divided along sectarian lines. The Irish population at that time in Australia was naturally sympathetic towards Ireland at the height of its fight for independence, and Bishop Dwyer of Wagga himself had expressed anti-British sentiments. The Catholic Federation also decided to run candidates for the Legislative Assembly elections in New South Wales in 1920, and a Protestant Federation was established in opposition.

Some of those helping Brigid with her court case had connections to the Loyal Orange Lodge of New South Wales, and Maureen accepts it’s a complicated picture. 

“I was surprised to learn that there were such sectarian tensions in Australia at that time,” she says. “Wagga Wagga was totally divided on Brigid.

“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.”

Undoubtedly some of those helping had their own agenda, but there was also genuine concern and affection for the Irish nun and life-long friendships established, such as that with Mrs Touchell, with whom she later shared a home.

“I tried not to take sides,” Maureen explains. “I thought, it is not up to me. But it is a story worth telling.”

And while some of those helping Brigid may have had their own agenda, Brigid also needed the emotional and financial support.

“She was making the most of her situation,” says Maureen. “There was a strong group with money who were willing to support her.

“What I would like to do is express real gratitude to the Sisters at Wagga Wagga who welcomed me and helped me with my research.

“I could never forget the welcome I received from the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, both in Kildare and in Wagga Wagga. Sister Alexis Horsley, archivist in Mount Erin Convent, also arranged for me to visit Father Peter Morrissey who attended Brigid in her later years.”

The story is well-known enough in Australia — even getting a People Magazine spread in 1964 —that Maureen revealing herself as a relative on her research trip elicited responses such as ‘Fair Dinkum’ or ‘By God, she was a gutsy lady’.

These are 21st century perspectives, of course, as Maureen is aware.

“You really don’t know how you would react being packed on a boat to Australia so far away from home,” she reflects. “That wee woman and her story deeply affected me.

“There are an awful lot of twists and turns to her story, which all the newspapers covered at the time.”

A fascination with Brigid’s life has also helped Maureen on a personal level. She was sadly diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease during the research of the book but has tried to keep her focus on the positives of her work.

“I had my book to keep me going,” she says. “It was a great help getting stuck into this story. I have had to sort through reams and reams of stuff including the court case to bring this story to life.

“I find it just occupied my mind.”

Maureen said the Sister Liguori scandal also helped take her mind off something else she never really got over. Maureen was badly traumatised for years after armed masked men tied her and other family members up during a robbery at their home in 2007.

“Everywhere I went, I saw masked men in my head,” she says. “Without realising it, I think that I was doing the research as a means of distraction.

“I got totally absorbed by the book. I’m not a writer but I had to convince myself to have a go at this.

“I feel it has the makings of a movie too. I even see the bishop being played by Russell Crowe. I think there is a real likeness there.”

The Extraordinary Case of Sister Liguori by Maureen McKeown is now on sale. It is being launched locally at Murphy’s Bar, Downpatrick, on Saturday, November 4, at 7pm. More information about the book is also online at: