WHEN Mick O’Donnell stumbled across a fragile set of newspapers dating back to the 1920s, a peculiar headline struck him: “Former Nun Sues Bishop”.
“I originally found them in a drawer at a friend’s house which used to be a presbytery – they were left behind from whoever owned the place last, so they must have meant something to someone,” says Mick.
The sensationalism of the headline, together with a lingering intrigue, inspired the Canberra author to write his second book, “Betrayal: The Curse of Father Patterson”, loosely based on the 1922 trial of former nun Bridget Partridge and Bishop of Wagga Wagga Joseph Dwyer in the Supreme Court of NSW.
The self-published novel is a fictional account of what happened leading up to the trial, which in real life, saw the young Ms Partridge attempt to sue Bishop Dwyer for wrongly deeming her “insane” and issuing a notice for her arrest after she escaped from a Victorian convent.
“The elements of that time really drew my attention, I thought ‘how could this have happened?’” says Mick, who spent 18 months writing the novel, reading court transcripts and visiting historical buildings in Sydney.
“Three-quarters of the book is leading up to fictional possibilities as to why she left the convent, and I had to change the names. I really imagined what it would be like in Sydney back then.
“It was extraordinary, some of the commentary from this trial – this was a time where women had no decision-making power, and they saw this former nun as an example of them, being suppressed and crumpled by the Catholic Church and now standing up for herself. So they packed into the Supreme Court, and it was mostly women in there supporting this girl.”
Mick “had fun” changing the ending – the real trial ended with Ms Partridge losing her case against Bishop Partridge, which “wasn’t surprising” in those days, he says.
“I grew quite attached to the nun, she’s the heroine in the story, and the last bit is how I imagine it ended – it’s my version of how it could have ended, without giving too much away,” he says.
Mick believes if transferred to today, the trial wouldn’t have been the media sensation it was back then.
“Unless you found something like those old papers, you’d say: ‘Oh that’s nice, ho hum’, because back then a young woman suing a powerful male bishop was huge,” he says.
“There’s trials now that are media sensations that perhaps people could read in 50 years and do the same thing as I did – be drawn to it and write a story years and years later.”
“Betrayal: The Curse of Father Patterson”, $25, available from Paperchain Bookstore, Manuka.