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The Extraordinary Case of Sister Ligouri

by Maureen McKeown


Published as an ebook by Amolibros at Smashwords 2017




Table of Contents


About This Book

About the Author

Dedication

Notices

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine




About This Book

The remarkable but true story of a young Irish nun who flees her convent.


‘Who would go out on a night like this in her bare feet, wearing only a nightgown? She must be mad!’


‘From a tiny spark may burst a mighty flame!’ Dante


The remarkable but true story of a young Irish nun who flees her convent in Wagga Wagga, NSW, barefoot, in her nightgown, on a foggy winter’s night in 1920, setting the scene for a religious storm unprecedented in Australia’s history. She finds refuge in the home of local Protestants who refuse to disclose her whereabouts to the Catholic authorities.

The Bishop, in turn, swears before a Chamber Magistrate that she is insane and a warrant is issued for her arrest. Hunted throughout Australia like an outlaw, her plight is driven by a heightening media frenzy that raises religious tension to levels unprecedented in Australia’s history.

Located in the home of the Reverend William Touchell and his wife, Laura, in a Sydney suburb, she is arrested and taken to the Reception House for the Insane in Darlinghurst to be held in remand for medical observation. Appearing before the Lunacy Court, a week later, she is declared sane and released. With no apology from the Bishop for the slur cast on her character, she turns to the courts for redress. But taking on the Bishop means taking on the Roman Catholic Church. Those who helped when she fled the convent offer their support again, along with every member of the Loyal Orange Lodge of NSW, to sue the Bishop. An unholy war rages around her as the enmity between the two sides, rooted in history and religion, reaches fever pitch.

This is the true story of the author’s Great Aunt, Brigid Partridge, known in religion as Sister Liguori.




About the Author

Maureen McKeown was born in Berkshire, England. She was educated by Sisters of Mercy at St John Bosco Primary School in Woodley, near Reading. At the age of eleven she moved to Northern Ireland with her family and was a boarder at St Joseph’s Convent Grammar School in Donaghmore, Co Tyrone. She has great admiration for the wonderful work of nuns and holds the warmest memories of their guidance. She went on to study at the Belfast College of Business Studies and began her working life in the NI Civil Service in Parliament Buildings, Stormont, as a Personal Secretary. It was a ‘troubled time’ for Northern Ireland as a campaign for Civil Rights heightened sectarianism and precipitated more than thirty years of bloodshed.

Maureen’s parents moved to Downpatrick, Co Down, in 1973 and a short time later, she met Charlie, her husband of thirty-seven years. Maureen quit the Civil Service to raise five children, during which time she also helped with the administration and running of the business Charlie and herself set up nearly forty years ago.

She had little time for hobbies but when her family flew the nest, she turned to the Internet to research her ancestors. The computer screen flashed up information on her Great Aunt, Brigid Partridge, and she was fascinated with what she read. It was the beginning of her writing journey. Research took her to the presentation convent that Brigid entered in Kildare, Ireland, at the age of seventeen. The warm and friendly welcome extended to her from the community of sisters gave Maureen the desire to pursue Brigid’s story further and she travelled to Australia where she received the same warm and friendly welcome from the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Wagga Wagga. Sister Alexis, the Archivist, gave freely of her time in showing her around the convent and contributing helpful material. When Maureen returned from Australia, she painstakingly sifted through a mountain of information and carefully crafted the remarkable true story of her great aunt. The Extraordinary Case of Sister Liguori would help her through her darkest hours after being diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease/ALS in 2015.

This is her first book.



Dedication

To my family, past, present and future.

This is for my husband, Charlie, my children, Catherine, Jennifer, Michael, Paula and Clare and my grandchildren, Annie, Jack, Ryan, Leona, Olivia, Emma and Alicia, for their unconditional love.




Notices

Copyright © Maureen McKeown 2017

First published in 2017 by Leo Press, 38 Old Course Road, Downpatrick, Co Down, BT30 8BD | www.theextraordinarycaseofsisterliguori.com


Published electronically by Amolibros | www.amolibros.com


The right of Maureen McKeown to be identified as the author of the work has been asserted herein in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988


All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser


British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library


This book production has been managed by Amolibros | www.amolibros.com




Chapter One

Mama is seated in the pony and trap at the front gate, her eyes glinting with pride. The cart shifts a little when Dada helps me up with my suitcase and Ben, the brown cob, kicks at the ground restless to be away. My young brother jumps in quickly and Dada follows, tucking a woollen blanket about our knees. I look to our stone cottage nesting in a hollow beside several tall oak trees where my three sisters are huddling in the doorway, their eyes red and puffy.

‘We’ll miss you, Bride,’ they call out, hoping in their hearts that somehow I will change my mind. ‘Sure I’m only going down the road,’ I shout back and Mama clasps my hand trying to soothe the pain of parting. The driver steers the cart towards Brownstown crossroads and, with a gentle flick of the reins, Ben picks up speed where the wooden signpost, blackened and pitted with age, says Kildare 11 miles. A steady trot takes us along the grassy verges of The Curragh where cows and sheep graze freely on thousands of acres of lush unfenced grassland in the heart of County Kildare. The fresh breeze awakens my senses to the Irish countryside that is set ablaze with ever-changing colours. Often compared to a large green tapestry, it is tinged with the orange glow of an early sunrise. Clusters of bright yellow furze bushes are growing in abundance far across the open lands, to the distant heather-covered Wicklow Mountains. As summer fades into autumn in 1908 a new season is marked, so too is a new beginning in my life.

When I announced my decision to enter an enclosed convent, Mama could not hide her delight telling me it was the proper life to lead. Dada was not so happy, arguing it was unnatural for a group of women to be locked away from the world, praying, fasting and doing penance. He said my head was filled with religious nonsense and that sacrificing my life in this way would be far from easy. He asked me what did I know of the world? ‘Nothing,’ he answered, not letting me speak, ‘because your mother protects you from everything … from the very wind blowing on your face.’

‘But, Dada, I want to be a teacher and this is my chance.’

‘How do you know what you want, Brigid? You are only seventeen.’

Mama helped me win the argument, telling him the matter was already settled.

We reach the town of Kildare, and turn left on to the aptly named Convent Road. The driver guides Ben skilfully up the slight incline and through the gates of St Brigid’s Convent, bringing the cart to a halt at the main entrance. Dada rings the bell. The heavy metal door opens slowly and an elderly nun, her sizeable headdress covering most of her face, invites us into the front parlour. Furnished with upholstered chairs and a bookcase filled with religious books, a piano is set into a corner and Holy pictures adorn the walls. A long sash window looks onto the front gardens where the large beech trees will soon be stripped of their glossy leaves.

We are left alone in the cold, musty room where the sickly smell of polish plucks at our throats. Mama pulls me to her with a sense of urgency, her tear-stained face dampening mine. ‘I will pray that God keeps you strong.’

‘Please, Mama, don’t fret, I am not far away and I’ll write as often as I am allowed.’

Jody’s small arms are around my waist squeezing me tight and his young face, bearing early signs of striking good looks, seeks solace from me. ‘Who is going to look after me when you’re gone, Bride?’

‘You’re a big man, Jody, even at eleven years old. It is your turn now to take care of the family.’

Dada kisses the top of my head. ‘Is this what you truly want, Bride?’

‘Yes, Dada, it is.’ Calling me Bride assures me of his blessing. His steel grey eyes mist over and I cannot hold onto my tears any longer. Suddenly, we are all crying.

The Reverend Mother enters the parlour telling my family it is time for them to leave. ‘Sister Mary Brigid is now in God’s hands as she surrenders herself into His service.’ The door closes heavily. I am locked in and the world is locked out.

Within a few short weeks I learn I cannot remain in an enclosed convent near my family, for the possibility of seeing them might harm my vocation. I write to Mama telling her I am to be sent to a convent in Australia where teaching nuns are needed.

My journey begins two days before Christmas. The ground is white with snow and the beech trees are settled into winter’s sleep. When they wake in spring, I will be far away. I travel to a convent in Dublin where I meet three members of the Presentation Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary, two fully professed nuns and a young postulant, like myself, who will travel with me to Australia. We board the overnight boat to Liverpool on Christmas Eve and continue to London by train. We arrive cold and tired at Tilbury Docks on a frosty Christmas morning with snowflakes swirling from a darkening sky. My long hair, tied back into ringlets, is pinned beneath a black cap and I turn up the collar of my coat to ward off the icy wind blowing at my back from across the River Thames. Cleared by a doctor of carrying contagious diseases on board we are allowed to embark SS Oroya. The two older nuns remain on the upper deck while Annie and I are dismissed to a cabin in the lower part of the ship where two metal beds are fixed one above the other. Annie claims the bottom bunk while I climb up to the top, squeezing my long body into the meagre space beneath the low-timbered ceiling. I set my black woollen coat over the thin blanket for extra warmth.

By the end of December we have reached Gibraltar and The Oroya docks to take rations on board. Allowed ashore with our travelling companions, we stay close to the ship welcoming the feel of dry land beneath our feet and the tingle of warm air on our cheeks. Journeying on through the month of January, we pass the Bay of Naples in Italy, past Sicily and then Crete. We have little to do on board, except quietly pray and read religious books. The continual rocking of the ship on water causes a great deal of sickness as it sails on through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, across the Arabian Sea and over the Indian Ocean. Confined to bed in the small, airless cabin, I long for the comfort of Mama’s arms. In early February, the deep blue sea becomes a lighter shade, a sign we are nearing land.

*

Brigid, Brigid, quickly … wake up … come and see Australia!’

Annie’s words nudge me awake and I open my eyes to golden sunshine. ‘We will be docking soon,’ she says, unable to hide her excitement.

Yawning, I stretch my long limbs in the cramped space of my berth. ‘We have spent forty-three days at sea, Annie, I have counted every one of them.’ A grating sound vibrates through the ship and the engines judder to a halt as I pack my few belongings into the suitcase that has travelled so far with me. We make our way to the top deck, shading our eyes from the strong glare of the sun. As SS Oroya idles towards the shore, we strain to catch our first glimpse of Australia. The tallest buildings we have ever seen shimmer on the horizon. The crew works hard guiding the vessel into its moorings and secures it firmly before the passengers file down the gangway like an army of ants. On Saturday, 6 February 1909, I stand spellbound by the chaos on Sydney Circular Quay as Annie and I wait with the two older nuns. Our heavy religious clothing is not fitting in such high temperatures and we attract strange looks from passers-by.

‘Have they never seen a nun before? They should show some respect,’ one of the older nuns snaps, indignant at being the object of fascination.

Several priests walk towards us and I learn two of them will escort me to my designated convent. I say a rushed goodbye to Annie and thank the older nuns. The journey continues by train and a gentle breeze blows through the window as it chugs across the farmlands of New South Wales bringing a little relief from the fiery heat.

‘Look, look … there’s a kangaroo,’ one of the priests says as he points to the strange sight of a brown marsupial hopping around in the shade of a large gum tree. The priests have fun outsmarting each other naming the animals and birds we spot. We see koalas and cockatoos painted like rainbows. ‘We have birds that sound like monkeys, but it’s the snakes and spiders you have to watch out for,’ one of them warns.

‘St Patrick banished all the snakes in Ireland,’ I tell them, shyly.

I am a stranger to this country. Comparing the vast open stretches of golden land to the green fields I have left behind is painful. Dusty towns and wide streets with wooden-framed buildings and open verandahs replace the narrow lanes and whitewashed stone cottages of Ireland. The trees here have large branches that spread outwards, like parasols, giving shade from the melting sun. The trees at home have branches bent inwards by the wind and rain, like battered umbrellas.

*

The final part of the journey is by coach and when we reach our destination, the convent bus is waiting to take us the two miles out of town. ‘Wagga Wagga, the place of many crows - it is often shortened to Wagga,’ one of the priests muses. It is early evening when we turn up the driveway and I see Mount Erin for the first time through the trees. The majestic red-bricked Tudor-style building with rounded towers and wide verandahs stands resplendent, ringed in a halo of sunlight from the dipping sun. I am overcome at the line of waving nuns gathered on the granite steps, sweltering in the heat of their habits, awaiting my arrival from Ireland.

The priests are taken for something to eat while I report to the office where the Reverend Mother is waiting to talk to me. ‘I am Mother Stanislaus. We are delighted you have arrived safely from Ireland to join our community here in Mount Erin,’ she smiles. ‘Have you brought your Baptismal Certificate with you?’

‘Yes, Mother. I also have a letter from my Parish Priest in Newbridge,’ I answer, my voice reflecting around me in the high-ceilinged room.


Brigid Mary Partridge was born on 19th October 1890 in Newbridge, Kildare, and was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith in St Conleth’s Church the following week. She is the second oldest in a family of five. Her father is a serving British soldier at the Curragh Army Camp here in Kildare. Although he was born an English Protestant, he converted to the Catholic faith on his marriage to Brigid’s mother, Anne, a devout Irish Catholic. Brigid has the benefit of a full Catholic education. I have known the family for many years, and can attest to Brigid’s excellent character. She is quiet and reserved and I believe she has the strength to persevere in religion to the end of her life.


The Reverend Mother’s face, partially hidden behind her headdress, tells me little, but her manner is kind. Her thin frame is lost among the layers of her habit. Large wooden rosary beads and a bunch of keys are attached to the black leather belt around her waist. On the wall behind her hangs a portrait bearing the inscription Nano Nagle, Foundress of the Presentation Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary whose mission began in Ireland during Penal times when Catholics were stripped of their religion and education. As a saviour for the suffering poor, her work spread to other countries and many single educated women aspired to join her. Mother Stanislaus is one of the original five pioneering nuns who arrived from Ireland in 1874 to help establish a convent and schools for the Christian education of the children of the early settlers in Wagga, many of whom were Irish fleeing the oppression of their own native land.

‘You will have a fortnight’s rest after your long journey, during which time you will become acquainted with the daily routine of the convent by taking part in prayers, meals and light duties along with the other postulants.’ Mother Stanislaus has a lilting Kildare accent like Mama. She rings a bell to call one of the sisters. ‘Sister Angela will take you to the refectory for something to eat. She will show you around the convent, after which you will have half an hour’s recreation when the sisters do their mending.’ As we make our way to the chapel for prayers, the convent is untroubled. The only sounds breaking through the tranquillity are the sweet chants of the sisters intoning the psalms. At eight o’clock I am taken to the community room and given a place beside another postulant.

A sudden rush of chat and laughter brings the convent to life. The young girl beside me introduces herself. ‘Hello, I’m Eileen Hayes.’

‘Hello,’ I answer quietly.

‘There is no need to whisper. This is our recreation. We talk while we sew,’ she says, handing me a threadbare habit to patch.

‘Thank you, Eileen, I’m Brigid Partridge.’

‘I saw you arriving from Ireland earlier today,’ she says.

A young girl sits down on my right. ‘I entered today, too. My name is Mary Fitzpatrick. I’m Australian.’

‘For a glorious half an hour every night we can talk! I want to hear your Irish accent so, come on, let’s make the most of it!’ Eileen urges, begging Mary and me for news. ‘We are not told anything that’s going on outside these walls.’

Eileen says our places in the convent are fixed between the postulant who entered before and the postulant who entered after. When the bell hails the end of recreation, Eileen leads the way, I follow and Mary comes behind as we file to the chapel for night prayers. The Great Silence begins at nine o’clock and is observed throughout the night until after breakfast every morning. I again take my place among the postulants at bedtime where a sister stands over us in the dormitory, rigid as a statue, holding a forefinger pressed tightly to her lips as we wash and undress. When I lie down on the narrow metal bed, I close my eyes and within minutes my mind is journeying back to Ireland of its own free will.




Chapter Two

On Sunday, 21 February 1909, I am formally accepted as a member of the Presentation Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is the beginning of my commitment to God to do His work and lead a purely spiritual life. I will belong body and soul to the service of this community.

The Mistress of Novices, Sister Clare, will take charge of my vocational training and I am placed in her care. She gives me a booklet on the regulations governing enclosed life that I must learn by heart, keeping it about my person and observing the rules at all times. She instructs me to follow her to join the other postulants and from that moment I learn to walk through the cloisters in complete silence, with downcast eyes and short measured steps.

Sister Clare’s small, round figure with plump cheeks stands before us. She writes the horarium on to a blackboard, and, through a thin, pinched mouth, says,‘This is your hourly timetable. It is to be followed at all times. If you are in the middle of something, you immediately abandon it.’ The day is set out from five a.m.: rise, to ten p.m.: bed. Continuous prayers and fasting along with cleaning duties will dominate my life during my six months as a postulant. I will then receive the habit and white veil of the order and given a new name in religion. When I am professed I will be a teacher.


I must become like clay in the hands of a potter, to be moulded by my superiors as they wish.


To avoid damaging our religious progress, postulants are separated from novices, who are separated from the professed nuns. Choir nuns – teaching nuns – are separated from the lay nuns who do the general housework and cleaning. I pity the gaunt outlines of the ageing lay nuns, held in lesser regard than the choir nuns. They have little education and usually come from a family background that cannot provide a dowry. Their lives are taken up with housework and menial tasks. Their bodies, bent and stooped over buckets of steaming water, line the lengthy corridors on their knees, swirling steaming cloths over the vast floors with their habits pinned up behind them. They rest occasionally to wipe the sweat trickling from their brows. I try not to think what growing old in this community will be like.

The convent is controlled by a system of bells. Obeying the bell is obeying the voice of God. Each morning, I fall from a warm bed on to cold floorboards when the calling bell rings. Dressing quickly, I get into line behind Eileen. Only the faint sound of birdsong disturbs the meditative silence as I kneel before the altar, rubbing sleep from my eyes. Three more hours will pass before we eat.

I long for a letter from home and at last Sister Clare calls my name. She removes the letter from its envelope and the air is scented with lavender, bringing me a clear image of Mama walking into Newbridge with it tucked safely into the cane basket she always carries. Her first stop will be J. H. Clinton’s on the main street for groceries and a bottle of whiskey for Dada. She will then go to the Post Office. Her eyes, as blue as cornflowers, brightening with pleasure when she asks for the special stamps needed to post it, telling the postmistress she is writing to her daughter, a nun in Australia, knowing it will be repeated throughout the day to every customer who passes through the door.

‘You’re quiet tonight, Brigid. Are you all right?’ Eileen asks later at recreation.

‘I received a letter from my family and expected it to be filled with news of my sisters and brother. I longed to hear words of comfort and strained to hear more but there was no more. When Sister Clare read it to me, it contained a few simple lines. With a wily stare, she secreted it to the folds of her habit, without a thought or care for the yearning within me.’

‘Our letters are censored by the Mother Superior before they are read to us,’ Mary says, ‘in case they contain something offensive to our vocation.’

What could Mama have written that would offend anybody?

‘I sought permission to reply and, as soon as I had finished, it was snatched from my hand and ripped into small pieces.’

‘What on earth did you write?’ Eileen and Mary ask.

‘I told them the food was served cold and there was never enough. Sister Clare made me sit down to write a proper letter telling my parents how content I am.’

‘Sadly, one of the Rules is – Thou shalt not complain,’ Mary says lightheartedly. ‘The nuns could have trouble with you, Brigid Partridge.’

*

We are busy sewing our new religious garments in preparation for receiving our white veils, and spend our final week as postulants in retreat in total silence studying the rules of the order. Although I will not be under vows until I am professed, I must live as though I am. The vow of poverty means I will own nothing. Everything is owned in common with the community. I will be given food and clothing according to necessity.

The next vow is the promise of absolute and unquestioning obedience to my superiors and to the rules of the Order. I will sacrifice my judgement, reason and conscience and I must obey the Mother Superior as holding her authority from God.

The third vow is chastity. The person of a sister is considered sacred and holy. I must subdue my flesh by fasting and abstinence as far as my health will permit. At table, I must eat what is set before me, or go without, only taking food to strengthen my body for the performance of my duties.

We will cast off everything worldly, including our names and we are eager to learn the new religious names we will be given. On the day of the ceremony, a stream of sunshine reflects off the stained glass window spraying a rainbow of colours over the oratory and Mother Stanislaus says, ‘it is a blessing from God’. The postulants, dressed like brides, stand before the altar. The choir sings ‘O Gloriosa Virginum’ before Mass is celebrated by the Bishop of Goulburn, with Father Mullins assisting. When Mass ends, the Bishop gives a blessing, quoting a text from St Matthew:


And everyone that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold and shall possess life everlasting. You have chosen to embrace evangelical poverty and are abandoning everything worldly to follow Christ,’ he says. ‘I trust that you will persevere in your constancy and endeavour to adorn your soul with the many priceless gifts of God. The life which you are about to enter will enable you to hold conversations with God on most important subjects and a far greater friendship will be cemented between Him and you.


The Bishop asks each of us, ‘My child, what do you demand?’

‘The mercy of God, the holy habit of religion, the charity of the order and the society of the mothers and sisters,’ I answer.

‘Is it with your own free will and consent you demand the holy habit of religion?’

‘Yes, My Lord.’

‘My child, do you think you have sufficient strength to bear constantly the sweet yoke of our Lord Jesus Christ for the love and fear of God alone to the end of your life?’

‘Relying on the mercy of God and on the prayers of the mothers and sisters, I hope to be able to do so.’

‘What God has commenced in you may He perfect.’

Each postulant returns to her cell that has been scrupulously cleaned for the next stage of the ceremony.

While I wait for Mother Stanislaus, I unfurl my long plaits from their ribbons letting my hair tumble loose down my back. Since I was a child, I loved the feel of it. For a moment, I play with it, curling it around my fingers and think of Mama washing it and combing out the tangles while I dried it beside the fire in the kitchen. Mother Stanislaus appears. Neither a heartening word, nor a smile slips from her unbending stance. She holds a large pair of scissors in her hand and snaps them open, their razor-sharp blades pointing towards me. With a glaring, cold stare she forces me to turn towards the wall. To be embraced in this new world, I must become dead to the old world and it is now time for part of my real self to be severed. I shut my eyes as she presses her palm down hard on the top of my head, yanking it back. With an unsteady rush of breath, she begins cutting. Chop. Chop. Chop. The scissors rest and opening my eyes, I strain to stop my hands from flying up to my head to feel my ragged scalp, bereft of the thick, healthy curls now lying at my feet. With no time to grieve, I am ordered to cast off my white dress and fold it neatly away before being buried in the over-sized black habit that is pulled down over me. A starched white cap is clamped tightly to my shorn head and a long white veil is attached to it with pins. The weight of the robe restricts my movement as I return to the chapel for the blessing of the habit.

We are ushered to prostrate ourselves on the bare floor and I strain to breathe as I renounce the world and forsake my worldly name.

‘Receive, Sister Mary Liguori, the white veil, the emblem of inward purity, that thou mayest follow the Lamb without stain, and mayest walk with Him in white. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’

‘Amen,’ I answer, remaining prostrate.

The refrain Regnum mundi is sung by one of the nuns as the novices reply along with the choir: ‘My heart hath uttered a good work, I speak my works to the King.’ The Veni Creator is intoned by the Bishop and, after more prayers, each novice is sprinkled with holy water. As I rise from the floor, a silver cross is placed around my neck, and a silver ring on my left hand, symbolizing my marriage to Jesus Christ. The choir sings the hymn Deus misereatur. With my long habit rustling around me, I embrace my fellow sisters. Eileen Hayes will be Sister Mary Raphael and Mary Fitzpatrick will be Sister Mary Kostka.

We are each presented with a copy of the writings of the Saints whose names we have been given, that we will imitate their holy lives. I am given The True Spouse of Christ by Alphonsus Liguori.

Afterwards, we gather for a celebratory meal in the refectory along with the invited guests. I sit alone watching the new novices enjoy this special occasion with their families and think of how proud my family, especially Mama, would have been attending this sacred ceremony today. Their absence from such a significant moment in my life makes me realize for the first time since entering the convent how isolated I am from what matters most to me.




Chapter Three

I continue as a novice for two and a half years, preparing to take temporary vows and receive the black veil. On Tuesday, 26 September 1911, guests are seated in St Eugene’s chapel and sanctuary, which is decorated with lilies of the valley and lighted candles. His Lordship, Dr Gallagher, Bishop of Goulburn, who is attended by the Right Reverend Monsignor Buckley and the Reverend Fathers Mulligan and Shannon, addresses the congregation:


The occasion of this religious ceremony is the reception and profession of a number of young ladies who have decided on the adoption of the life of a religieuse, and are giving up the affairs of everyday life to enter the cloister of the convent, there to devote their energies and their talents to the teaching of the young.


Later, Mother Stanislaus summons me to her office. ‘It is our life’s mission to produce young Catholics who are knowledgeable about their faith. There is a shortage of teachers at St Joseph’s in Lockhart. The school opened its doors three years ago to sixteen boys and twelve girls. By the end of the first year, numbers had grown to over two hundred, increasing every year since. Sister Clare has put your name forward to take classes.’ My smile broadens as she assigns me to teach catechism to the younger children. ‘Your teaching duties will begin tomorrow morning, Sister. I know your mother and father could not attend today’s ceremony,’ she says, holding out an unopened envelope. ‘This letter arrived earlier from them.’ I am barely able to fight a childish urge to jump up and down with joy. I place it in the pocket of my new habit until later.

Back in my cell, I retrieve it instantly, before carefully folding my new religious garments. I wash, put on my nightgown and dip my fingers into holy water before kneeling down to thank God for the wondrous day. In bed, I open the envelope with such care as not to tear any part of it. Snuggling down, I am blessed with a rare moment of happiness alone with my family.


Brownstown

Kildare

Ireland

15 August 1911


Dearest Bride


How quickly three years have passed. We are filled with pride in the young girl who travelled so far from her home to devote herself to God and lead the proper life in a convent. Your father worries you may be lonely and hopes you have overcome some of your shyness. He compares your life in the convent to his life in the army, saying it will be Rules! Rules! Rules! I am sure it is not like that.

I am happy to tell you that Joseph is studying to become a priest and Lizzie has written to a French order of nuns whom she hopes to join. Susan is teaching and Kathleen now helps me at home. The Curragh army camp is expanding and construction workers are flooding into the area. Newbridge is bustling with the extra business and we are taking in boarders. They are a mixed selection of gentlemen from Ireland and England. We have an English actor, Mr Russell, who keeps us entertained in the evenings.

Sometimes there are visiting priests from Australia at Mass and I wait afterwards to tell them about you. I have asked them to pay you a visit if they are passing Mount Erin Convent. Do you get visitors? We remember you every night when we pray the Rosary together. Please keep us in your prayers.


Your loving family in Ireland


I read the letter again, fold it back into its envelope and place it under my pillow. I want to shout my own good news – tomorrow I am going to be a teacher.

*

I wake early. Mother Superior will check my appearance and I pay special attention to my hands and nails, scrubbing them until they almost bleed. I worry at the scant preparation I have received for the task ahead. Sister Kostka and Sister Raphael have assured me I will learn from the other teaching sisters as I go along.

I have not ventured beyond Mount Erin since my arrival in Australia and have forgotten the colonial-style buildings flanking the wide, dusty streets as I travel through Wagga in the black cab. I am dizzy with excitement as I look up at a cloudless blue sky.

Sister Mary Philomena welcomes me, along with Sister Mary Josephine and Sister Gerard. The large, bright classroom is divided by a partition. Pictures cover the walls and a large clock is mounted above the blackboard. ‘You must instil orderly and modest behaviour into their minds as well as obedience to the teachers,’ Sister Mary Philomena instructs.

The children rise from their seats. ‘Good morning, Sister Philomena.’

‘This is your new teacher, Sister Mary Liguori.’

‘Good morning Sister Mary Lig … Ligoor.’ The children giggle.

Sister Philomena tells me to write my name on the board before leaving me alone in front of a class of at least forty children. The desks are set in pairs. The girls, their hair tied up in ribbons, wear long smocks that cover their ankles. The young boys wear short trousers and leather boots more suited to the rural areas they come from. Lifting the stick of chalk, dust sprays down my sleeve as I spell out my name: S I S T E R M A R Y L I G U O R I. ‘Now, who is going to tell me what you do every morning when you get up?’

‘Sister, Sister!’

‘I will answer if you call me by my proper name.’

‘Sister Ligwori!’ one little boy shouts.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Christopher, Sister Ligwori.’ A wave of blond curly hair falls over his eye. ‘I get out of bed!’

Taking a moment, I let the laughter die out.

‘What else do you do, Christopher?’

‘I make the sign of the cross and say my prayers.’

‘Good boy.’

Most of the children live on local farms, helping out with early-morning chores before school. With overcrowded classes, some days are easier than others. Gaining confidence, I teach the children their catechism and the commandments. They learn to honour and respect their parents and how to examine their consciences every night before going to bed. They are also prepared for First Confession and First Holy Communion.

After six months, I am transferred to St Brendan’s School at Ganmain. The school opened five years ago and, as the numbers grow, so does the demand for teachers. Lessons are conducted in the original church building beside the convent where I stay with a small community of nuns during term time. Classes cover all levels of education, but I continue teaching the younger pupils. I tingle with delight when their young trusting faces look to me for inspiration. My training as a teacher comes as guidance from Sister Mary Columba and Sister Mary Vincent.

Towards the end of 1914, I am admitted to Lewisham Hospital in Sydney to undergo a nasal operation. It is my first taste of freedom in six years and I am able to catch up with the world through the newspapers. We had been told in the convent that England had declared war on Germany on 22 August 1914. Every day I witness the arrival of wounded soldiers at the hospital and see first hand the savagery of war. My spell in hospital also affords me the opportunity of writing home without my letters being inspected, the matron offering to post them for me. I write to each of my sisters and to Jody and I write to Mama and Dada, assuring them that I am recovering well and asking them not to mention receiving letters from me. When I leave Lewisham Hospital I convalesce in Mount Erin before returning to Ganmain for a further three years during which time I take my final vows that I am bound to forever.

*

I go back to Mount Erin in February 1918. Mother Mary Aloysius now holds the office of Mother Superior and she assigns me to take a class of forty young boys in the infant department of St Mary’s for an hour and a half each day for religious instruction.

‘I cannot believe there is so much work involved in teaching boys who look so angelic with their curly hair, innocent eyes and freckled faces and how suddenly they can become so spirited! I hope they behave tomorrow during the diocesan inspection,’ I confide to Sister Raphael at recreation.

‘Don’t yell at them in front of the inspector. Use your eyes … like this.’ She flashes a severe look that makes me laugh.

‘It is so good to be back at Mount Erin!’

The following morning, I present myself to Mother Aloysius after breakfast. Pain is burning a path through my stomach and I try to stay steady, holding out my hands for examination as the floor sways beneath me. I am thankful to be dismissed quickly with an impatient wag of the finger.

‘You look awful – are you sick?’ Sister Kostka whispers behind me as I stagger to the lavatory. Today of all days! Dragging myself through the playground, I breathe in slowly, hoping the fresh air will relieve the spasms shooting through my abdomen. Circling the classroom is a whirlwind of noise and I quicken my pace to find Mother Aloysius standing in front of the class demanding immediate silence, her face telling me of her disapproval. The diocesan inspector is already seated at the back of the classroom and observes me questioning the children on their catechism until the bell finally rings at eleven o’clock.

I walk to the refectory, sitting in silence between Sister Raphael and Sister Kostka. I play with the bowl of soup set before me and a crust of congealed fat floats to the surface. I rush from the refectory, my stomach retching, holding a handkerchief over my mouth.

‘Are you any better?’ Sister Kostka asks later at recreation.

‘I won’t feel better until I’m in bed,’ I tell her, stifling a yawn. ‘I am glad the inspection is over. It’s been a long day and the boys were playing up a little.’

‘Mother Superior has been stirring us up all week. Look around – the convent and school are polished to such a degree that even the spiders have left,’ Sister Raphael says playfully.

‘What would I do without you to lift my spirits? Hopefully that will be the end of it.’

Mother Aloysius calls me to her office the following night and I am late for recreation.

‘We thought you weren’t coming. You’re very pale. Is everything all right?’ Sister Kostka asks.

‘I was with Mother Aloysius. She told me that I was unable to keep control in the classroom and she was not happy with me.’

‘Did you tell her you weren’t feeling well?’

‘She wouldn’t listen. She severely reprimanded me, saying I knew we were having an inspection. She proceeded to tell me that the organization and running of a large convent such as Mount Erin is dependent on each of us playing our part. Then she fell silent and I could hear the clock ticking as she took her time to continue. I wondered why she couldn’t just say what she had planned for me. Finally, she took pleasure in telling me that due to a shortage of lay nuns, she is temporarily relieving me of teaching duties and putting me in charge of the refectory.’

‘Oh, no! Every sister dreads the work in the refectory!’ Sister Kostka says.

‘Yes, I know. It will be for a fortnight while they await the arrival of a young lay nun to replace me. I will then return to my teaching post. Her exact words were, “You will receive this office as coming from the Lord. You will perform it with great care. Your daily religious obligations will be less than usual so your tasks can be accomplished.”’

‘How do you feel about it?’ Sister Kostka asks sympathetically.

‘It is humiliating in front of the whole community!’

‘A fortnight isn’t long,’ Sister Raphael consoles.

*

The following morning, the usual prayers and devotion fill the three hours before breakfast after which I remain in the refectory to take up my new duties. Sister Gertrude gives me a white apron to cover my habit along with a timetable setting out the day. The list is endless: clearing tables, washing-up, drying-up, brushing and polishing the floors, answering calls at the door and preparing the table for twenty teaching nuns coming in at eleven o’clock. Yesterday, I was one of these nuns filing silently into the room, inclining to the great crucifix that hangs above the head table. Sister Raphael and Sister Kostka throw me a pitying look and I blink a greeting back. While they are lunching, I have playground duties for fifteen minutes and I rush out to mind the younger children of St Mary’s.

A gentle tug at my sleeve draws my attention to a wide-eyed little boy standing beside me. ‘Will you be here to look after us tomorrow, Sister Liguori?’

‘I don’t know. Do you want me to look after you tomorrow?’

‘Yes, please, Sister. You make us laugh when you pull funny faces.’

‘Do you mean like this?’ I twist my face and hear his giggles as he runs after the other children.

When I return to the refectory I am told the names of the nuns who will be taking dinner and I lay the tables. When all the nuns are seated, I carry the vegetables from the kitchen, and after that the puddings. Again, I am occupied in washing-up. The day continues with more prayers, devotion and a light meal which I have to quickly clear away to allow me to enjoy my half-hour’s recreation, after which there are night prayers and then, finally, I go to bed at ten p.m.

Every day is the same. Staggering under pots of steaming water, I carry them from the stove to the deep enamel sink in the kitchen. I clear the tables of plates and cutlery and pile them on to the draining board. My glasses cloud over when I immerse my hands into the boiling water. Crimson marks weave a pattern across my skin and as soon as I remove them from the steaming liquid, Sister Gertrude forces a sweeping brush at me.

‘This is how to sweep the floor. Hold the brush firmly. The refectory must be cleaned and ready for inspection by Mother Aloysius. Do not leave a corner of this room untouched,’ she orders.

When I finish sweeping, I roll up my sleeves, tuck my habit into the black belt around my waist and kneel down. I scrub and polish the refectory floor with a heavy brush and cloths; the strong detergents clog my nose and throat. Other duties take me from the refectory and I return to a sink overflowing with dishes. When I finish clearing the last of the plates I sit down at 3.30 p.m. to a meagre portion of cold, watery soup. I discard a lump of fatty gristle and push the bowl aside. Sister Gertrude pushes it back towards me.

‘You must eat what is set before you, Sister.’

I spoon the lump of glistening fat into my mouth, the putrid smell seeping through my nostrils as I chew. Slimy grease dribbles down my chin and I force myself to swallow it.

‘Now, Liguori, you can wash up your bowl and cutlery.’

Sister Agatha enters the refectory. ‘I notice you are wearing one of my veils. I saw you trailing it in your food. Take it off, I don’t want you wearing it.’ Lunging at me she tries to rip it from my head. Stepping back I tell her I will go upstairs and change it. Before I get the chance, Mother Aloysius calls me to her office to tell me that the lay nun who should have been on her way to replace me is not coming and my work will continue in the refectory for another while.

*

I pray fervently that I will soon be relieved from the duties that are weighing so heavily upon me. Frightening dreams begin to invade my sleep … Menacing black shadows are inscribed on the wall above the altar in the chapel where the wooden crucifix hangs. A large beech tree crashes through the roof and the bloodied, tortured body of Jesus Christ falls from the crucifix onto the ground beside me. My screams break through the tomb-like silence, waking me … and the other sisters.

‘Sh …sh,’ they hiss all around. ‘Go back to sleep!’

I sink, paralysed, beneath my blanket, trying to escape the vision filling my head but afraid to return to sleep.

Morning comes and I struggle through the day wishing for some relief from my tiredness. I have missed recreation and night prayers in the chapel and I haul myself upstairs to bed. Before I reach my cell, Sister Agatha beckons me along a dark, ghostly passageway that leads on to the open verandah at the back of the convent. ‘Your bed is now out here because you are waking the other nuns during the night. This is where the lay nuns sleep when there is no cell for them. You will be allowed inside during storms and heavy rain.’ She stares hard at my headdress. ‘Why are you still wearing my veil when I told you I don’t want you wearing it? It is heavily stained. You did the same with Sister Xavier’s veils.’ Her clenched fist comes down on the side of my head.

Pain pulses between my temples as I prepare for bed, making use of a thin strand of light shining from the heavens. An earthy smell hangs in the air and the sounds of rustling leaves and snapping branches echo around me as birds flit from tree to tree and small animals scrabble about the ground below. I burrow deep into bed with the blanket held tightly over my head to escape whirring wings and stinging insects. Alone and lost in this alien place, I wonder why God is not listening to my prayers.

Dawn creeps over Mount Erin and with unbearable closeness the thunderous vibration of the convent bell strikes like a hammer into my head. I crawl from under the blanket, tired and hungry, shivering in the chill of the morning air. I force myself along the passageway to dress and dutifully follow the line of nuns downstairs to chapel to begin the same routine as yesterday.

None of the junior nuns will swap beds with me and I ask Mother Aloysius, after breakfast, if I could have a separate cell.

‘There are no separate cells for lay nuns.’

‘I have been told there are two separate cells amongst the lay nuns, Mother.’

‘So you have been mentioning it to the lay nuns?’ Her frozen look tells me I will continue sleeping on the verandah.

I wake one morning shading my eyes from the bright light breaking through the darkness. A wave of nausea causes a merciless pounding in my head forcing me from my bed. I am unsure of the time as I dress and creep downstairs. Stepping outside, I walk about the dew-soaked gardens hoping for relief and meet Sister Veronica.

‘It is not yet five o’clock, Sister,’ she says.

‘I am unwell with a headache. I think I will have to break my fast and eat something.’

‘You will have to persevere and wait until after Mass.’

I lie on top of my bed trying to quell the sickness of hunger. The religious observance for receiving Holy Communion each morning at mass is to abstain from food and drink for twelve hours. Not even a sip of water can pass my lips. My headache remains with me all day and by bedtime I long for sleep. When I make my way upstairs, Sister Veronica is waiting for me.

‘Your bed has been brought back inside, Sister. Don’t disturb the other sisters during the night or you will have to sleep out on the verandah again.’

A small act of kindness, but as I prepare for bed I am plagued with doubts and am slowly losing faith. Almost two years have passed since I was placed in charge of the refectory and there is no end in sight.

Where did it all go wrong?

*

The elected office of Mother Superior rotates every three years and Mother Aloysius’ term has come to an end. It passes again to Mother Stanislaus who I have already asked to be relieved of my duties in the refectory but she says there are no lay nuns to replace me. I despise the work and the continual complaints about the food.

Doctor William Joseph Dwyer was appointed the first Bishop of Wagga in 1918 and he visits Mount Erin once a year to speak to each sister individually. In May 1920, it is time for his annual visit and the tension builds as the sisters gather in a lengthy line outside Mother Stanislaus’ office. I am queuing with the lay nuns quietly preparing what I will say. I will tell him that up until two years ago I was a choir nun, teaching in branch convents for six years, until I was relegated the duties of a lay nun. I will ask his advice on the proper measures that will allow me to return to teaching. Mother Stanislaus comes out of her office to tell us the Bishop is ready, and giving a harsh warning to be on our best behaviour. ‘It is an honour that Bishop Dwyer is visiting Mount Erin. He will be asking each of you if you have any complaints to make and does not want to hear trifling protests of dissatisfaction.’

By the time my turn comes, my stomach is looped in knots. I knock and enter. Bishop Dwyer is tending the Reverend Mother’s display of plants, his foot tapping time to the tune he is humming. He is wearing a scarlet red shoulder cape over his black cassock. A black silk band adorns his waist and a large cross set on a gold chain is draped around his neck, glistening amidst his dark clothing.

‘I won’t be a moment,’ he says in a nonchalant manner, snapping dead leaves off a plant. Footsteps shuffle towards me, and I curtsey. He extends his right hand and I kiss his ring, a symbol of his faithfulness.

Ordered to sit down, I place my trembling hands into the big, roomy sleeves of my habit and fold them in my lap. He takes a seat behind the pine desk spreading his hands, the nails clipped short, across the polished surface. A few tufts of silver-grey hair poke from the sides of his smooth face. He is balding on top.

‘I am asking all of the nuns in the convent these three questions.’

‘Yes, Your Grace.’

‘Are you in good health?’

‘Yes, Your Grace.’

‘You look very thin to me. Have you any complaints of any sort to make to me as bishop?’

‘No, Your Grace.’

‘Are you perfectly happy and contented?’

‘Yes, Your Grace.’

Strict orders of obedience prevent me from answering otherwise.




Chapter Four

I look forward to playground duties with the children of St Mary’s during break time. My teaching skills are useful settling squabbles and wiping tears after a fall. Spilling from their classrooms, a small group waits for me at the side gate near the chapel. Their button noses, sprinkled with freckles, poke through the metal railings as they listen for my key to jingle in the lock. The gate rattles open and they race forward, ‘Sister Liguori … please Sister Liguori … let me hold your hand?’

Young Sheila Byrne, her face flushed with excitement, reaches me first and clasps my hand. Her little friends link hands on either side, forming a long daisy chain. We march in step across the playground, swinging our arms and chattering happily.

‘My mother helped me pick a bunch of cream roses for you from our garden this morning, Sister.’ Sheila’s brown eyes glitter beneath her silken fringe: ‘No one saw me bringing them into school and they’re hidden in their usual spot behind the water tanks.’

I squeeze her hand. Sheila often brings me flowers. ‘I must get you something special. I know, I will get you a holy card trimmed with paper lace,’ I promise.

*

On Saturday, 24 July, I wake with a headache long before the calling bell and lie in the darkness wishing there was someone I could talk to. I have lost my place in this community as a choir nun and I no longer have Sister Raphael and Sister Kostka for company at recreation but the older lay nuns. How can I leave? Where will I go? How can I go into a world denied me so long? I recall the grief mixed with pride in Mama’s eyes and the arguments with Dada when I took the first steps towards this life. It is sinful for me to have these thoughts and I shudder at where my mind is leading.

I wash in the pre-dawn chill and, yawning, raise my arms up to take the heavy layers of the habit over my head. I string the long rosary beads through a brown leather belt that buckles tighter around my thinning waist. I lace up my old boots, so tired and worn they can only be polished to a dull shine. Pinning my veil on to my headdress, I pick up my glasses and wrap their metal arms around my ears before emptying the water from my wash basin down the lavatory. I make my way to the chapel and, kneeling before the altar, the loud rumblings in my stomach remind me that several hours will pass before I will sit down to breakfast.

I have fewer duties at weekends and when I finish my work in the refectory, I go in search of the Mother Superior to ask if I could be allowed back to teaching. She usually brushes me off telling me it is the devil tempting me to turn my back on God. She was away for three weeks and only returned a few days ago. I visit the chapel where several solitary black figures are bent forward in prayer. Mother Stanislaus is not in her usual seat and I go to her office. There is no reply to my knock and I climb the stairs hoping to catch sight of her outside from one of the top windows. I press my face closer to the glass and am lost in the gathering gloom of ash-grey skies as I peer across the paddocks, sensing the freedom that lies beyond the convent grounds. In the strained light, two identical chimneys poke through a gap in the trees. Smoke patterns billow into the air and I wonder about the family living there. I glimpse the Mother Superior and rush back down to the office, trying to catch my breath before knocking the door.


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