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News > Alumnae News! > Cornelia Connelly

Cornelia Connelly

An exceptional story of devastating tragedy, strength & perseverance

At a recent HCK Alumnae meeting we were discussing our foundress - Cornelia Connelly. None of us were quite sure of the exact details of her life but we remembered certain stories that each separately would make her life remarkable but all together they tell an exceptional story of devastating tragedy, strength & perseverance. Below I have tried to summarize some of the main aspects of her life which made her the extraordinary woman she became. 

Cornelia Connelly was born in Philadelphia in 1809. She married Pierce Connelly and together they had five children. Her husband struggled with his Episcopalian faith and eventually convinced Cornelia to convert to Catholicism in 1835. 

They lived a happy life until the summer of 1839, when their fourth child, Mary Magdalen, died suddenly at six weeks old.  

While grieving for her beloved daughter Cornelia made her first 3-day catholic retreat. God touched her deeply and her life was profoundly changed. She gave herself in a new way to God, she wanted to serve God in any way she could in her daily life.  

Her growing attachment to God was tested in February of 1840 when her two-year-old son John Henry was playing with his dog when the dog accidentally pushed him into a vat of boiling sugar. There was no doctor available, so he died of severe burns in Cornelia's arms.  

Soon another heartbreak followed, eight months later, while pregnant with her fifth child, Pierce decided he wanted to become a Catholic priest. Cornelia supported him, even though it meant the end of their marriage. 

Gradually Cornelia discovered her own vocation to devote herself to her religion. In 1845 Pierce was ordained in Rome. Cornelia, hoping to join the Society of the Sacred Heart, went with two of her children to stay with the sisters in Rome, but finding no peace there, she prayed to know what God wanted for her. These prayers were answered in a request from Pope Gregory XVI that she go to England. 

In 1846 Cornelia and three companions arrived in Derby and the Society of the Holy Child began. To her great sorrow she was ordered to send her children away to boarding schools. Many other deprivations filled her Society's small beginning, yet a spirit of joy and peace prevailed.  

Soon they were running schools for the poor, holding day, night and Sunday classes to accommodate the young factory workers, giving retreats and helping in the parish. As her Society grew and its works flourished, great personal suffering again came to Cornelia through Pierce. He renounced both his priesthood and his Catholic faith, removed their three children from the schools they were attending and denied Cornelia all contact with them, hoping to force her to return to him as his wife. He even pressed a lawsuit against her that gained notoriety in England, but he eventually lost the case. 

Today, there are Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus in fifteen countries. They are engaged in educational and related spiritual and pastoral ministries. 

Cornelia Connelly was declared Venerable on June 13, 1992. This is the first step towards sainthood.  

Recently some Holy Child Alumnae from Mayfield School were in touch with our alumnae association asking for support in a campaign to stop plans to transfer the remains of Cornelia from Mayfield school to Philadelphia where she was born.  

More than 300 people objected to her remains being moved from Mayfield School, the independent Catholic girls' school which she founded. 

Sue Gaisford of Mayfield School's Cornelian Association, who led a campaign against the transfer, said there was "much relief and gratitude" that the plans had been abandoned. 

"Cornelia restored the chapel in the 1860s and it became the mother house and hub of the teaching order she founded, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus," she told the BBC in an interview.  

"Her philosophy, the Cornelian spirit, still pervades both school and chapel. 

"She specifically asked to be buried at Mayfield, and today's decision will ensure that her body will remain undisturbed and a focus for prayer and pilgrimage for many years to come." 

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