A nasty chest infection has coincided with my intention to learn more about the building and the people, but first an interesting question from a reader. What does looking at the charcoal drawings I produced on my last visit invoke in me, in particular the second drawing?
This was the drawing where I introduced music, which I felt blurred the desire to replicate. I can sense ghosts and torment in the detail, housed in a structure that transcends. I can see the layering of years and emotion. I can see this medium is a perfect way for me to explore, perhaps on a larger scale.
Cornelia Connelly 1809–1879
My writing in this and future research blogs is not intended as an academic work, but merely as background. My two sources for this post are Flaxman’s book and the Society’s own biography of Cornelia.
My quest is to make connections with the building. It is not to retell the life story of its principal occupant. However, a brief summary of key points will help focus historical context and also help clarify personal connections.
When I started this journey I was at a loss to understand how I, a non believer from the 21st century would have any connection with a 19th century Catholic nun. How wrong was I!
A cropped image of Cornelia from the cover of A Woman Styled Bold by Radegunde Flaxman, 1991.
Cornelia was the founding mother of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, founded on the belief that working class girls needed to be educated, a path chosen for her by God. Indeed Pope Gregory XVI’s declaration to her that she was called to do great work in God’s Church, changed her view of the world.
The journey that led to this decision was quite extraordinary. Born in Philadelphia, we join her at the age of 22 in 1831, just married to Pierce, an Episcopalian minister, they travelled West by stagecoach for nearly six days along rutted tracks to Pittsburg, where they boarded a steamboat for the 1700 mile journey to Natchez in the Deep South.
They bought a small house and by 1835 they had two children and Pierce was gaining recognition for his work. When passed over for promotion and increasingly drawn to the unpopular Catholic Church, he resigns and seeks introductions in St Louis via his Catholic influence. By November the young couple with a 3 year old and baby leave for St Louis, Pierce with thoughts of becoming a priest, Cornelia increasingly influenced by the Catholic religion.
By January 1836 they were on their way to Rome. It became increasingly obvious that Pierce was fiercely ambitious seeking introductions that ultimately led to an audience with the Pope. Pierce was befriended by the Earl of Shrewsbury and spent the summer on his estate at Alton Towers, where he met Augustus Welby Pugin, who would later design the Chapel at St Leonards.
It became apparent to Cornelia that Pierce was prepared to sacrifice his marriage for this ambition. Cornelia turned to God.
In 1837 their third child, John Henry was born while they were touring Northern Europe. A downturn in the US financial market prompted their return to Natchez and financial ruin. Pierce took a Jesuit teaching post in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. In the summer of 1839 at the age of 6 weeks, their fourth child, Mary Magdalene died. The couple attended a spiritual retreat at the end of 1839, after which Cornelia declared she belonged entirely to God, and Pierce was reawakened to join the Catholic priesthood.
In 1840 John Henry was knocked into a vat of boiling sugar by the family dog. Cornelia nursed him for 43 hours before he died, connecting her experience with the mother of Jesus, to help her find solace. By the autumn she was pregnant with their fifth child. On the 13 October Pierce confirmed his priesthood intention, a decision that required her permission and a vow of perpetual chastity. Years later she would state that the Society if the Holy Child Jesus was founded that day, on a breaking heart.
Ever single-minded, Pierce sold the house they bought the year before, took Mercer to boarding school in England, and travelled to Rome, leaving Cornelia, Ady and the newborn Frank with the Religious of the Sacred Heart convent. Cornelia was required to give her permission in person in Rome, so Pierce summoned her and she arrived with the children in December 1843. He petitioned for ordination in March 1844, when they signed a decree of separation. At no time had Cornelia’s wishes been taken into consideration. At this point in history women and possessions belonged to the man!
While in Rome Pierce continued to visit Cornelia and the children weekly, but once she moved to Derby, under the sponsorship of Bishop Wiseman, to start her Society, everything changed. The children were sent to boarding school and Pierce was not permitted to visit. It slowly dawned on Pierce that Cornelia was no longer his property.
As a mother of six (including three stepchildren), who has also lost a young child and one through tragic circumstances, it is impossible for me not to connect to her pain of motherhood. We took opposing paths but our decisions could so easily have been otherwise. Cornelia founded the Society on a breaking heart, while I find myself undertaking this residency in similar circumstances.