On July 24th 1920, a barefoot young nun clad only in a nightgown slipped out of Wagga's Mount Erin Convent and ran through the frosty night, straight into a national scandal.
The story of Sister Bridget Liguori, later Bridget Partridge, was a sensation in 1920's Australia, the nation captivated by the runaway nun who was hidden by Protestants, pursued by the church, accused of madness, made to stand trial and eventually exonerated.
The thrilling tale may have been a state-wide scandal at the time but these days the quiet woman at the center of the tale of poison, pursuit and kidnapping has largely faded from memory.
So, who was Wagga's runaway nun, how did she end up taking on Bishop Dwyer of Wagga in the NSW courts and did she ever, truly, win her freedom?
Bridget's great escape
Dr Jeff Kildea is an expert in sectarianism and said the tale begun when Irish-born nun Sister Bridget Liguori, depressed and demoted from her teaching position at Mount Erin convent, became convinced her Mother Superior was trying to poison her.
In a letter penned to the Bishop, shared in 1954 in her only interview with the now discontinued Australian People Magazine, Bridget described the events as she perceived them that fateful evening.
"Your lordship, Bishop Dwyer, I, Sister M Liguori was not treated in Wagga Wagga Convent as I ought," she wrote.
"I tried to do my duty the same as the rest of them. My health broke down [and] I asked for medicine, Doctor gave me poison to end my life."
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"I fled from the convent. I do not wish on any account to go back to Mount Erin. My death bed was fixed for me at Mount Erin. I got into it (just like me). I drank the poison (just like me)."
Local historian Geoff Burch explained that in his research he found no evidence the Mother Superior had any intention of murdering Bridget, and the "poison" was later found to be a mixture of castor oil and coffee.
Fact or fiction, the young nun was convinced.
The story goes that the night she made a dash, the fields of Wagga were bathed in lantern light as dozens of set about trying to locate the missing woman on the orders of the Bishop.
On the run, Bridget holed up with a local family who were members of the Protestant activist group the Loyal Orange Order which is where, according to Dr Kildea, the matter turned from the private to the highly political.
A religious battle before the courts
At the time, the nation was bitterly divided down sectarian lines - the Catholic Federation and Protestant Orange Order in stark opposition.
Dr Kildea describes Bridget as being a "ragdoll being pulled apart by bigger forces of the time" as the religious factions fought to claim her.
By August, Bishop Dwyer took the tussle to the courts, claiming Bridget was insane and needed to be arrested for her own safety, citing the testimony of a local physician.
News articles at the time reported that hours later Bridget, then staying with the family of Reverend William Touchell in Sydney, was roused from her bed at 1am and arrested on the grounds of "lunacy".
Made to stand trial, the runaway nun was swiftly exonerated but continued the legal fight the following year when she was convinced by her Orange Order benefactors, who covered the legal fees, to counter-sue the Bishop for false arrest.
News articles from the time were fixated on the trial, as the young nun took on the Catholic leader in front of a four-man jury and though she ultimately lost, it was found the Bishop had deliberately had her falsely arrested though he was cleared as no "malice" had been found in his actions.
Snatched in broad daylight
Bridget's part in the war wasn't done just yet, however.
Months after the second trial, in October 1921, while strolling down a Sydney street with the Touchells, Bridget Partridge was kidnapped.
"[The group] were walking slowly and unsuspectingly, when suddenly, near a street corner, about 20 men emerged, from behind a post, and three treeguards," an article in The West Australian at the time described the scene.
"Three of them hurried to Miss Partridge, and picked up and carried her to a motor which had drawn up.
"Miss Partridge was evidently so overwhelmed by surprise that she did not scream or offer great resistance, and the car sped in the direction of Sydney."
To Bridget's shock, the kidnapper was revealed to be none other than her own brother, who had been flown in from his home in Hong Kong to try and convince the former nun to return to the Catholic fold.
The quiet young woman refused, and ultimately it was decided she would be left alone, and she returned to the Touchell family.
A tragic end
In a tragic twist Bridget did not live out her days in the freedom she had fought so hard for.
The woman exonerated of madness by a court of law in 1920 finished her days as a patient in a mental health institution where she died in 1966.
A Sydney Morning Herald article published in the days after her death explained that Bridget and her friend Mrs Touchell became inseparable in older age.
As the years passed however, Bridget's mental health deteriorated rapidly, with letters from her longtime friend to doctors describing episodes of delusion and paranoia.
A gruesome end came to the ladies' living situation when a public health officer was called to the home and found the women living in squalor. His report described rotting food, an unbelievable stench and overall lack of hygiene in their shared home.
Fears for their health saw the two ladies taken into custody and both were admitted to Rydalmere Mental Hospital in 1962, where they died within three years of each other.
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