The speaker was Edith O’Gorman – the “Escaped Nun” who spoke for nearly two hours, keeping her audience keenly interested and repeatedly eliciting vociferous applause.
The story of Edith O’Gorman is indeed a fascinating one. Born at Roscommon in Ireland on 20 August 1842, Edith O’Gorman emigrated to America in 1848 where she joined the Sisters of Charity in 1862, becoming Sister Teresa de Chantal and residing for the next six years at St Joseph's Convent in Hudson City, New Jersey. In January 1868 she left – or as she later claimed ‘escaped’ from - the convent and the following year she converted to Protestantism.
On August 18th 1870 she married William Charles Auffray, a Frenchman who had emigrated to New York. A son, William John Charles Auffray, was born in New York about 1876. In 1871 Edith published Convent Life Unveiled: The Trials and Persecutions of Miss Edith O’Gorman, which ran to numerous editions and was translated into several languages. In it, Edith recounted the many cruelties which she had allegedly endured during her time as a nun. These included being forced to eat worms for minor infractions of the rules and her attempted rape by a priest. Soon afterwards she began a series of Anti-Catholic lectures in which she detailed her blood-curdling experiences and railed against the horrors of convent life. She was billed as ‘The Escaped Nun’.
Edith took her lecture tour to New Zealand during the last few months of 1885. She arrived in Australia in March 1886 and embarked upon a lecture tour here.
On Friday 2nd July 1886, Edith gave her lecture at the Campbelltown Town Hall. It was reported that “a number of Roman Catholics were present at the lecture; and one man who was thought, by those who knew him, to be a bigoted Roman Catholic, was overheard to say – “every word she has said is the truth, for I know it”. * Her tour of Australia continued until December 1887. In many places her life was threatened, riots occurred, stones and eggs thrown and general disruption between Protestants and Catholics occurred. Edith and her husband then travelled to England where she continued lecturing. In England her tour attracted large audiences and mixed responses. While British Anti-Catholics applauded her condemnation of convents, small Roman Catholic minorities protested violently at her lectures and even threatened her with violence.
Edith’s husband William died, aged 50, in Dulwich on 25 June 1893. Edith herself died on 25 May 1929, aged 86, and was buried alongside her husband in London’s West Norwood Cemetery. An imposing but now semi-derelict monument still marks their grave.
Written by Claire Lynch