As anyone who has ever watched Sister Act fully understands, there are just some things even the meanest and baddest of bad guys can't do. Killing nuns, and disrupting the sanctity of pious religious orders, is one of them.
So what type of nefarious villain would, in the April of 1929, embark on a four-year campaign of terror against the quiet Sisterhood of St Mary's Beaudesert Convent? And was this "the work of a maniac with a personal vendetta or an anti-religious craze"?
With the unsettling goings-on in Beaudesert a hot topic nationwide, this was a question regularly voiced in newspapers of varying journalistic integrity, from Sydney's notoriously sensationalist Smith's Weekly - co-founded by a theatrical publicist - to our local Beaudesert Times.
The first reports of incendiarism at the convent began before dawn on Tuesday, November 5, as smouldering embers revealed little more of the original timber convent than piles of charred rubble - and an empty tin of methylated spirits.
In a proverbial baptism by fire, the newly formed volunteer fire brigade had tackled their first real blaze and, with the aid of the citizens' bucket brigade, had managed to prevent the flames from spreading to the neighbouring church and school.
Thankfully, all Sisters of Mercy and student-boarders had escaped with their lives. This was, however, in no small part due to Sister Mary Christina, a veritable hero in a habit, who battled the flames to lower elderly Sister Mary Dominic to safety (albeit with a broken rib), before returning for the Sacrament and alighting from the balcony into the arms of Messrs Schmidt and Drynan below. What a woman!
Brisbane CIB Detective C. Hegarty once again returned to Beaudesert. He was still investigating two previous fires at the convent, one discovered in an open trunk and the other in a bedroom that had destroyed a mattress and charred the walls.
The discovery of an empty one-gallon tin of methylated spirits - and signs of it having been splashed around another bedroom - added uncomfortable credence to a series of poison-pen letters and crudely threatening scrawls appearing on the convent-school blackboards during the night.
Reports of crime and misdemeanours against the convent then seem to have fallen relatively silent until May 27 1933, when Smith's Weekly ran the attention-grabbing headline:
"Mystery Death of Nun in Queensland Convent: Religious Order Terrorised".
Three nuns had fallen violently ill late the previous year after ingesting an unknown poison, with one ultimately succumbing to the "callous murder".
By June 3, Smith's reported gunshots fired at an unsuspecting nun and threats to poison the well and "destroy the convent with dynamite". Someone, it seems, was nothing if not disturbingly determined.
The public was assured that police would "endeavour to end the reign of terror by capturing the criminal or madman who has threatened to continue his dastardly work". Reassuring.
Said madman, or at least an unpleasant chap with a chip on his shoulder, did appear to have struck again when, on December 4, CIB Detective Acting-Sergeant Brannelly was called to investigate the break-in and wanton vandalism of the Roman Catholic Church at Gleneagle. Brandishing an axe with wild abandon, a nocturnal intruder had indiscriminately swung at anything not tied down and half of what was, leaving splintered woodwork, pews and a myriad of sacred objects strewn around the adjoining cemetery.
With reports of targeted attacks on two Roman Catholic institutions, the embers of speculation were further stoked.
So, were the attacks on the Gleneagle church and the Sisters of Mercy related? Was it the work of one "maniac" or two? Was it all a tabloid beat-up or a series of bizarre coincidences?
CIB's intrepid detectives T.M. Brannelly and R. Gannon had the unwanted visitor to Father Denis O'Keefe's Gleneagle Church in cuffs within two days. Despite an obvious tendency to lash out irrationally with sharp objects, the middle-aged perp went quietly without a raised fist. Fifty-three-year old William Rafter was, rather, defiantly proud of his actions and eager to take full credit:
"I broke in with an axe and I will take you out and show you how I did it!"
Not satisfied with having made a full confession, he further elaborated: "A fit of rage came over me and I broke everything up. I then wrote on the floor, and I meant every word of it...".
As reported in the Beaudesert Times on the 22nd December 1933 following Rafter's pre-trial hearing at the Beaudesert Courthouse, Sergeant Brannelly stated that Rafter seemed to have "an absolute obsession against the clergy and the nuns".
Even the most amateur of sleuths amongst us will note some correlations with the earlier reported goings-on at St Mary's Convent: an issue with nuns and a penchant for scribbling on things.
So, does that make William Rafter - son of respectable Gleneagle farmers and strong devotees of the Roman Catholic faith - our culprit for arson, murder and miscellaneous misdemeanours directed at the convent?
Certainly, Rafter, one of Father O'Keefe's most lapsed flock, willingly provided a motive: "The nuns and priests....were given money that should have been mine".
Rafter himself came from fine Irish-Catholic stock. His parents, William Snr and Elizabeth (nee Corcoran) were immigrants from County Tullamore who had settled in the Gleneagle district in the late 1860s. In the absence of a parish church, their home "Ballymooney" had long been a welcome open-house for Mass and visiting clergy on horseback bearing travelling Mass-kits.
Five years before Rafter's birth, his parents had donated approximately five acres of their 155-acre property to the church, and it is on this land that Gleneagle's St Joseph's Church was completed in 1876.
Despite being the sole beneficiary of the family home, Rafter admitted to police at his arrest to having "had this on my mind for the last 35 years".
So, what ecclesiastical happenings circa 1898 may have met with the young Rafter's wrath? Apart from weddings, funerals, baptisms and church picnics, not much. 1899 was the year in which construction of a convent for the Sisters of Mercy at Beaudesert was formally proposed. The founding committee included a number from the Rafter and Corcoran clans.
William Rafter faced a criminal trial in the March of 1934 for the vandalism of St Joseph's church and was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment with hard labour. This was, however, wholly suspended due to his somewhat diminished mental capacity.
No one was ever charged with the St Mary's Convent arson or the extended campaign of intimidation. Again, without mention in Detectives Hegarty, Gannon and Brannelly's case notes, or police gazettes, there is no evidence that the fire at the convent was ever formally investigated.
So, how much was fact and how much was fiction - or a grapevine run amok? One thing seems apparent. From December 1933, there were no further violent disruptions to the quiet sanctity of St Mary's Beaudesert.
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