Cornelia Connelly, Woman of Trust

As I was preparing to give a woman’s retreat on our Sorrowful Mother, I wondered what example I could offer of a woman who suffered much and never gave up the faith. Cornelia Connelly came to mind. You’ve probably never heard of her, but her incredible, arresting story is worth telling. Read on.

Cornelia was born in Philadelphia in 1809. Her father died when she was 9; her mother died when she was 14, and so, an orphan, she lived with her half sister, Isabella, and her husband. She converted from being Presbyterian to Episcopalian.

In 1831 against Isabella’s wishes, Cornelia married Rev. Pierce Connelly, an Episcopalian minister five years older. The couple moved to Mississippi when he was appointed rector of a church there. Two children were born to them.

In 1835 Pierce resigned his pastorate to explore the Catholic Church, which at that time was persecuted in the United States. The result was that he and Cornelia both became Roman Catholic and moved to Rome. But in the meantime, they were without income. Cornelia said she would rely “on the kind providence of God.”

Calamities came for Cornelia. In 1839 a daughter was born but died after six weeks. In 1840, pushed by a dog, her two-year-old son fell into a vat of boiling sugar and died in her arms. Cornelia began a life-long devotion to Mary as Mother of Sorrows.

The year her son died, when she was four months pregnant with their fifth child, Pierce told her that he wanted to become a priest. According to the current law, this meant she had to take a vow of chastity and was encouraged to enter a religious order. It would break up the family. The couple moved to England.

 In 1844 Cornelia entered the Sacred Heart Convent, taking her baby son with her. Pierce had permission to visit her once a week. Strangely, Pierce was ordained in the convent chapel. His visits to Cornelia had to end.

In 1846 Cornelia founded her own community, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in England. She said it was founded on a breaking heart. The community educated poor children in many schools in England.

In 1847 Cornelia made perpetual vows. The following year Pierce, who illegally paid her a visit, eventually abandoned the priesthood and removed their children from the schools they attended. He was hoping to force Cornelia to return to him as his wife. Although she still loved him, she stood firm.

Pierce spread ugly rumors about her. He pretended to be the founder of her community and opened a lawsuit against her. The judge decided she should return to Pierce or go to prison. The public, mostly Protestant, favored Pierce. In the end a special council suspended the judgment, but Cornelia had to pay the court costs! Pierce became vocally anti-Catholic.

Under British law a man had custody over his children. Pierce took them, and Cornelia was alienated from her children for the rest of her life.

After dealing with further trials related to her community and its relationship with clergy, Cornelia died in 1879. Today her Sisters of the Society of the Holy Child of Jesus work in fifteen countries.

She was declared venerable in 1992, the step before beatification, recognizing the extraordinary “faith, hope, and spirit of charity with which this strong, but humble, sweet, upright, and prudent
woman bore [her] difficulties.”

• How do you find strength to deal with the crosses that come across your life?

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