Cornelia Connelly’s life is one of the more challenging and complicated of all of the Saints, Beati, Venerabili and Servants of God of America.
Born in Philadelphia, PA on January 15, 1809, she was raised in the Presbyterian Church. Orphaned by the age of fourteen, she went to live with her older half-sister and her husband. Against her family’s wishes, she was baptized in the Episcopal Church and married Rev. Pierce Connelly, an Episcopal priest.
Scandalized by the anti-Catholicism of American in the mid-1830s, both Pierce and Cornelia began a study of the Catholic faith and were drawn to it. Cornelia was received into the Church on December 8, 1835. Pierce, who renounced his Episcopal priesthood, was received on March 27, 1836, after an audience with Pope Gregory XVI in Rome confirmed his Catholic faith.
The couple lived in Europe for a time, but were forced back to America in the midst of a financial crisis that saw Pierce’s fortune in land investment lost. They took positions teaching in Catholic schools in Grand Coteau, LA, when tragedy struck. Already with two older children, they lost a baby at six weeks, and a second child, a toddler, who was tragically killed when he was accidentally pushed into a vat of boiling water by a large dog. Cornelia found solace in her faith, but Pierce became restless and desired to do great things for the Church. He resolved to become a Catholic priest!
With Cornelia’s consent, they were released from their marital commitments, and Pierce was ordained a priest. “I have given him to God,” she wrote. “This thought gives me much consolation.” Their children placed in boarding schools, Cornelia was free to pursue her own religious vocation, and she founded the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. Cornelia was invited to England, where Pierce also served as a priest.
Tensions between the two grew, however, as Pierce became increasingly emotionally unfettered. Jealous of the authority her bishop naturally had over her and her religious community, Pierce came to see Cornelia and eventually demanded a reunion between them, even taking Cornelia to court in England to demand she return to him as his wife. Having now abandoned his Catholic faith, Pierce became a fierce anti-Catholic and accused Cornelia of having abandoned him and the children! Cornelia fought back to preserve her own religious vocation. She believed, since the pope had granted Pierce’s ordination, that it must be the will of God. In any case, she refused to renounce was she truly believed was her own call by God to serve in her new Society. Eventually, Cornelia won in the courts, but not without suffering a great glow to her reputation among the people of England. Pierce, for his part, returned to the Episcopal Church and served as rector of a parish until he died in 1883. He apparently supported himself partly by publishing many anti-Catholic tracts, some of them directed against Cornelia. Cornelia had little contact with her children after the troubles of their parents. Women had little legal rights when it came to property or children in the 19th century. Pierce had taken them from her and cut them off. Her oldest child, Mercer, returned to America to live with his uncle, but died at the age of 20 of yellow fever. Her daughter, Adeline, dedicated herself to the care of her father. She was reconciled with her mother after his death. Their youngest surviving child, Frank, became a renowned painter in England. He retained his Protestant faith but always regarded the members of his mother’s Society as his “sisters.”
All the while during this period of trial, Cornelia remained committed to the work of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, which was to teach children. Under the guidance of her supporter, Bishop Nicolas Wiseman, she founded a home for the Society in St. Leonards-on-the-Sea in south England. There, she trained novices and sisters for the vocation of education, and sent them out to the far corners of the world. Sisters were sent to America in 1862, fulfilling Cornelia’s dream of a foundation in her own country. After enduring hardship in their first location in Towanda, PA, they moved to Philadelphia, where they enjoyed success and the American province of the Society would flourish. Over the years, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus would spread to Nigeria, Ghana, Chad, Kenya, Chile, and the Dominican Republic.
As she aged, Cornelia would transfer the responsibility of the Society to others, but remained involved in running the Society until her death. In March, 1979, she became ill, probably from nephritis, and died, surrounded by her Sisters, on April 18, 1879 with an expression of peace on her faith. Cornelia had found peace at last.
Many began to write of Mother Cornelia’s holiness after her death. After World War II, the Society collected these testimonies and her cause for canonization was opened in 1959 by the Diocese of Southwark, England. The Church declared Cornelia Connelly Venerable in 1992, testifying to her life of heroic virtue worthy of veneration and imitation.
Ven. Cornelia Connelly’s life is witness to the fact that we never know where life will take us, or where God will call us. If we remain faithful to Him, however, there will be peace at the end. Ven. Cornelia was known for her joy, even in the midst of a tumultuous life of sacrifice and loss. That joy can only come from a deep and profound faith and from knowing that, no matter what, God is all.
O God, who chose Cornelia Connelly to found the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, inspiring her to follow the path marked out by your divine Son, obedient from the crib to the cross, let us share her faith, her obedience and her unconditional trust in the power of your love. Grant us the favor we now implore through her intercession (here mention the favor you desire), and be pleased to glorify, even on earth, your faithful servant, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
Sources: “Cornelia Connelly,” Wikipedia; Society of the Holy Child Jesus website: http://www.shcj.org/our-story/cornelia-connelly/
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.