You may know a lot about St. Katharine Drexel, Philadelphia’s first native born saint. How much do you know about Venerable Cornelia Connelly (1809-1870), who you might say is a saint in waiting?
Like Katharine, Cornelia was born in 19th century Philadelphia and founded a religious congregation of women, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, which continues to this day. But she could probably best be compared to America’s first native-born saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton, a Catholic convert who was married and had young children when she entered religious life.
Unlike St. Elizabeth, who was a widow when she entered religion, Cornelia was also a convert but was married yet legally separated from her husband Pierce Connelly when she founded the Holy Child Sisters. She remained married but separated until her death. Hers is quite a story.
She was born Cornelia Peacock in 1809, the daughter of Mary and Ralph Peacock in center city, Philadelphia. It was a large, well-to-do Presbyterian family and she was well educated at home. Her father died when she was 9 and her mother died when she was 14, after which she lived with a married sister, Isabelle.
That family was Episcopalian and through this connection she met a young Episcopal cleric, Pierce Connelly, a curate at Philadelphia’s Christ Church. The two fell in love, Cornelia joined the Episcopal Church and they married in December 1831.
The records suggest her sister Isabelle did not approve of this, and later developments suggest she may have had a point.
After their marriage Pierce accepted an assignment to a small rural parish in Natchez, Mississippi. It was a good marriage and over the next decade produced five children, two of whom died, something so very common in past generations.
In the meantime the Anglican Communion, including the Episcopal Church in America, was being rocked by the Oxford Movement in England that sought to return Anglicanism to its traditional liturgical and in some aspects theological roots in Catholicism.
Pierce resigned from the Episcopal priesthood in 1835 and it wasn’t long before both became Catholic, first Cornelia, then Pierce. They lived in Louisiana and abroad for several years while Pierce pursued a seemingly impossible goal of ordination as a Catholic priest, something unheard of for a married man at that time.
Finally he hit upon a dramatic solution. If he and Cornelia would agree to live celibate lives apart, Rome might permit his ordination. Cornelia loved her husband and it was with great reluctance that she consented to Pierce’s plan if it was his wish and the church permitted it.
It was not until 1844 that final permission for Pierce to become a Catholic priest was given, provided both would agree to a legal separation and he take the promise of celibacy required of a secular priest, and she the vow of chastity of a nun. Nevertheless they remained lawfully married until her death.
As part of the separation agreement their eldest child was placed in a Catholic boarding school and Cornelia took residence with the younger children with the Society of the Sacred Heart. It was her intent to possibly enter that congregation when the children were old enough to go to a school.
In the end, she decided at the request of Pope Gregory XVI to found her own congregation and, inspired by her own children and the Holy Spirit, it would be the Society of the Holy Child Jesus.
Interestingly her own sister, Mary, to whom she was very close, also became Catholic and did enter the Sacred Heart Sisters with most of her ministry in convents in the Philadelphia area, including Eden Hall.
As Pope Gregory desired, Cornelia’s new order would be based in England where the faith was growing and there was a need for Catholic schools. Well-to-do English Catholics were sending their daughters to convent schools on the continent, where too often they met eligible bachelors and married there.
With the assistance of Bishop (later Cardinal) Nicholas Wiseman a first foundation was made in Derby, an industrial town in southern England. Later it was transferred to St. Leonard’s-on-Sea where Cornelia would remain for the rest of her life as her congregation grew and flourished.
Her greatest headache was Pierce. While she was in Rome he was permitted weekly visitation, but in England Bishop Wiseman did not think that advisable and forbade the visits.
When Cornelia would not see him he became furious and took the children and placed them in private schools, not even allowing them to read the letters she sent. This was definitely the greatest sorrow in her life.
Ultimately Pierce left the Catholic priesthood and returned to the Episcopal Church. He then tried to force Cornelia to come back as his wife. At this point Cornelia, who had entered a convent initially to please him, stood her ground and refused.
He sued her in the English courts for loss of consortium and incredibly in that era when women had few rights, he won in the lower courts but when she appealed he reluctantly gave up the fight.
To her great sorrow, through Pierce’s spitefulness, Cornelia never had contact with her children for many years and never saw their eldest child again.
Pierce would live a long life, spending his last decades bitterly anti-Catholic as an American Episcopal pastor in of all places, Italy.
There were other obstacles. Cornelia did not always see eye-to-eye with bishops and priests who did into agree with this strong American woman who had her own ideas and methods. She would not back down when perhaps they attempted to convert her Sisters in their diocese into a diocesan congregation, rather than an international one.
One bishop wrote to her complaining that he was informed girls were being taught to dance at the school and asked if she could have it stopped. What he didn’t know, it was Cornelia herself who conducted the dance class. Another bishop when writing to a confrere, referred to Cornelia as “that incorrigible woman.”
Even Bishop Wiseman, her early protector, at times had to accede to her wishes. At one point he asked that a set of rooms at St. Leonard be set aside for his use. She refused, pointing out the possibility of scandal that could result from such an arrangement, especially because of the bitter Connelly vs. Connelly suit.
In time her congregation spread and she revisited Philadelphia and the former St. Leonard Academy which opened in Philadelphia.
Her schools were an interesting mixture of academies for the affluent and humbler neighborhood schools that were partially funded through the academy tuitions.
Whether they were schools for children of the wealthy or children of the laborers, the curriculum was essentially the same, encouraging all students to aim high.
“The fact that she was both a mother and a wife may have made her approach in her school quite different,” observed Sister Roseanne McDougall, the archivist of the North American Province of the Holy Child Sisters.
As for the paradox as to why Pierce Connelly turned so vindictive after clearly being a loving husband, it has been suggested he may have had bipolar disorder, she said.
Most of the local ministries established by the Holy Child Sisters are no longer operative, and those remaining have mostly lay leadership including Rosemont College, Rosemont Holy Child School at Rosemont and Holy Child Academy, Drexel Hill.
At the end of the day saints are recognized not just for their sanctity bur for their ability to be role models.
For Emily Siegel, a recent Rosemont graduate and the assistant in the archives at the college, Cornelia resonates today “because she was from a broken family. Many things in her life can apply to young people today,” she said.
But being a pioneer in education and a woman who refused to accept the then prevailing notion that members of her sex must be subservient to men is not the whole story. Pierce may have planted the seed for Catholic conversion into her head, but of the two, she was received into the church first, and she adamantly resisted any temptation from him to renounce her religious vows.
“The will of God is the only happiness and the only thing worth living,” for,” she once wrote.
“She lived this for the rest of her life,” said Holy Child Sister Carlotta Bartone, who is the postulator for Cornelia Connelly’s cause for canonization, which was not officially opened until December 1959.
“In 1992 Cornelia was declared venerable, and it is hoped she will someday be canonized,” Sister Carlotta said. “Please report any prayers answered or favors received through the intercession of Cornelia to the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, 1341 Montgomery Avenue, Rosemont, PA 19010.”
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I would also suggest for anyone who finds Cornelia’s life story either amazing or puzzling to google “A Love Full of Action: the Extraordinary Life and Work of Cornelia Connelly. This DVD was commissioned by the European Province of the Sisters of the Holy Child to mark the 200th anniversary of her birth.
She was very considerable woman, if the husband had not insisted on becoming a Catholic priest, she wouldn’t have entered the convent. Bear in mind that she did what she did for the sake of Pierce the husband who didn’t know what he wants. She is a role model for many women. A saint in a short time…. watch and see how God works
Cornelia Connelly would have liked nothing better than to fulfill her roles and wife and mother. She was prevented from doing so by her husband’s insistence on being ordained a Catholic priest and then his increasingly erratic behavior. In the context of options available to women in the 19th century, she tried to discern a way forward in the light of God’s love. The legacy of her faithfulness can be seen in the 170 year old Society of the Holy Child Jesus, of which I am an Associate and author of a booklet about Cornelia Connelly. For more about her life, legacy and witness of holiness, see http://www.shcj.org/american/our-story/cornelia-connelly/.
Please read Sr. Radigund Flaxman’s biography of Cornelia titled: A Woman Styled Bold”. It is very well done and gives an in depth look at the life and challenges of this “bold” woman!
I read Cornelia Connelly’s biography a long time ago. I remember her suffering after losing a two year old child and her acceptance of God’s will. It may well be that her true vocation was founding the Holy Child order. I am a Holy Child alumna and I have seen
Probably best not to judge a woman called by God unless you yourself are God.
Really interesting article – thanks!
Cornelia Connelly was a wife, mother and nun. She fulfilled her obligations to both marriage and children. Pierce kidnapped her children (no, the author didn’t use that term, but that is what he did). She actually followed Pierce’s desire to become a priest and took a vow of celibacy for him. SHe suffered great pain in her following God’s desires for her. She is, indeed, worthy of sainthood. I thank God every day for the Sisters of the Holy Child in my life, including my aunt and great-aunt and others.
She did fulfill her vocation. She was a loving wife and mother who bowed to the customs of the time by obeying her husband’s wishes and providing for her children. It is no fault of hers that she was saddled with a mercurial spouse (and that’s being kind to him) and discriminatory laws. She followed God’s call and lived her life faithfully, serving both God and her brothers and sisters. That’s the very definition of sanctity.
Her first vocation was marriage and being a mother. Not sure why she would be considered a saint when she didnt fulfill her obligations to that vocation.
This story seems strange to me. I agree with Judi.
In the early Church after Constantine legalized Christianity, in the first millennium and beyond, the Church began developing its first laws on celibacy. The candidate for Priestly Ordination were held to “complete abstinence from conjugal relations and to the procreation of children even within the context of marriage….this renunciation could only be done with the consent and agreement of the wife of the candidate for Ordination to Priesthood because the state of holy matrimony in itself was indissoluble.”(The Case for Clerical Celibacy by Cardinal Alfons Maria Stickler). The wives, as with our Saint in the making, thereafter lived apart from their husbands, often entering Convents with any children that the couple may have had previously.
2nd 1/2 of comment:
…it would be on the part of the bishops who advised her, not on her. She was obedient to the Church’s instructions. These things happened in the early Church, too, and she lived before the Holy Spirit gave us a deeper understanding about marriage through St.JPII’s Theology of the Body. She never abandoned her children; her husband took them to hurt her. Your lack of sympathy for this woman seems cruel and self-righteous, but maybe it is just because your voice inflection is missing from your comment. Hope that is why.
The whole situation is quite odd, but I agree wholeheartedly that her first committment was to her children. I do not see how her abandonment of them qualifies her for sainthood.