Charles Moore

The curious case of Cornelia Connelly

The curious case of Cornelia Connelly
Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia (photo: iStock)
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Visiting Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1980s, I found myself warmly welcomed (I cannot remember why) by a lively group of Catholic feminists. Their heroine was Mother Cornelia Connelly. I was embarrassed not to have heard of her since she did her greatest work near us in Sussex. Hers is quite a story. 

In 1831, aged 22, she married Pierce Connelly, an Episcopalian minister, in her native Philadelphia. Both later converted to Catholicism. Pierce wanted to become a priest, which was difficult, what with a wife and five children. The couple eventually signed a perpetual deed of separation so he could be ordained. While still looking after her younger children, Cornelia became a nun. Coming to England, she established a teaching order, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. After a bit, however, Pierce got fed up, left the Catholic church and wanted her back. She said no. He brought a court case, Connelly vs Connelly, to restore his conjugal rights. It continued for years, in blazing publicity. He lost. 

Mother Cornelia founded numerous religious houses, and two orphanages, finally establishing the mother-house at St Leonard’s Mayfield, where she rebuilt the church of a former summer palace of the Archbishops of Canterbury, setting up what remains a well-known Catholic girls’ school. She was intellectual, open-minded and maternal, adopting a broad curriculum and dressing her girls in red because she preferred bright colours. She understood teenagers: ‘You mustn’t punish everything.’ For all these reasons, including her defeat of her husband, those Mississippi Catholic feminists loved her. She was made ‘Venerable’ in 1991. Her formidable woman-power may be rewarded by canonisation. 

Perhaps because of possible sainthood, something strange has happened. Cornelia’s now-worldwide order wants her bones — or rather, macabrely, some of them — to be exhumed from Mayfield, where she expressly wished to be buried, and re-interred in Philadelphia’s Catholic cathedral. It was announced, without consultation, that ‘Cornelia is coming home’. Planning objections to the process involved here in Britain are due by 4 March. Belatedly apprised, the school’s former pupils (‘Cornelians’) are furious: 272 written objections have poured in. I particularly like this one: ‘I do hope the authorities take a lesson from Solomon and decide that those with the truest intentions would never wish to see any child of god, whether dead or alive, divided into two.'

This is an extract from Charles Moore's Spectator Notes. Click here to read the whole piece.