By John T. Gillespie

Special to The CS&T

Philadelphia-born Cornelia Connelly, a wife and mother who overcame family tragedy and personal adversity to found a worldwide Roman Catholic teaching order, is the focus of a year-long celebration on the 200th anniversary of her birth.

“There was no such thing as a purely secular subject for Cornelia Connelly. All learning led to God,” said Father Robert Kennedy in his homily at the opening Mass Oct. 12 at St. Agatha-St. James Church in West Philadelphia.

The ceremony, attended by members of the teaching order she founded, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, and others, took place a block from the former St. Leonard’s Academy, union was operated by the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus for more than 100 years. The University of Pennsylvania owns the property today known as St. Leonard’s Court.

Cornelia was born Cornelia Augusta Peacock in 1809 and raised as a Presbyterian. In 1831, she married Rev. Pierce Connelly, joining him as the rector’s wife at Trinity Episcopal Church in Natchez, Miss. The couple eventually had five children, two of whom died in childhood – one, a four year-old son, in a tragic accident.

Within years the Connellys converted to Catholicism and, soon after, Rev. Connelly elected to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood after the couple was granted a deed of separation by Pope Gregory XVI. The dispensation was contingent on Cornelia’s taking a vow of chastity. She would later confide to a friend that separation from her husband was a moment of great trial and sorrow in her life.

After considerable prayer and soul searching, Cornelia, too, found a calling to serve God and applied to create a new religious education order and relocate to England, where she founded the Society of the Holy Child Jesus.

The order, whose constitution is based on the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, is dedicated to teaching young women and operating schools primarily in the United States.

Today, nearly 400 Sisters of the Holy Child carry on Cornelia’s legacy through education, social work, health care, and legal work in North America, South America, Europe and Africa. In Philadelphia the order serves Rosemont College, Holy Child Academy in Drexel Hill and the Rosemont School of the Holy Child.

Sister Catherine Quinn, S.H.J.C., said that Cornelia’s personal trials never broke her spirit or love for those around her. “In spite of the hurt and pain her husband caused her, she kept him in her heart. Her capacity to keep Pierce in her heart is an example of her own motto, ‘Actions, not words.’ She lived in love and joy and she encouraged other people to do the same.”

The Society’s yearlong celebration will include service projects in the Philadelphia area as well as other regions where Sisters of the Holy Child serve; an inaugural Holy Child Awards dinner in Conshohocken in April; and a Cornelian tour of significant Philadelphia landmarks in May. For more information, visit

John Gillespie is a member of St. Bridget Parish and former reporter for the Philadelphia Evening & Sunday Bulletin.