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How an American woman became a nun to let her husband become a priest

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In the midst of the strange situation, Cornelia Connelly remained steadfast in her pursuit of holiness.

Born into a large Presbyterian family in Philadelphia, Cornelia Peacock was quickly introduced to a life of hardship and abandonment. Her father died when she was nine and her mother when she turned 14.

She went to live with her half-sister. She was a beautiful young woman who attracted the attention of an Episcopal priest. Despite the opposition of her family, Cornelia married Reverend Pierce Connelly in 1831.

They moved to Mississippi where Connelly became pastor of an Episcopal church. Cornelia gave birth to two children there and during this time the couple began exploring the Catholic faith. Eventually Connelly resigned from his pastorship because of his search for the truth and made a resolution to travel to Rome.

Both were received into the Catholic faith, but Connelly desired to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest. At the time there were no provisions for a married man to be ordained in the Latin rite, so it was suggested that he pursue the Eastern rite. The advice didn’t suit Connelly and for the time he began to gave up his desire.

The family enjoyed a short time living in Italy and returned to Louisiana so that Connelly could teach English at a Jesuit college. Cornelia taught music at a local school while raising their four children.

However, Connelly wasn’t satisfied and again pursued the priesthood. This he did while Cornelia was already pregnant with their fifth child. She was understandably resistant to the idea, but saw it as somehow the will of God.

The family went back to Rome. In order for Connelly to be ordained a priest, Cornelia had to enter the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Trinita dei Monti. Having recently given birth, she was allowed to take her son to the convent, but lived first as a laywoman while she nursed her child. Connelly began studies for the priesthood. Before he became a deacon, Cornelia asked him to reconsider his pursuit.

Connelly insisted on his ordination, and so Cornelia consented to a vow of chastity, accepting it as the will of God. Connelly was ordained a priest while she became a religious nun. Cornelia had trust that God would bring a greater good out of the situation.

A bishop in England heard of Cornelia and asked her if she was willing to found a religious order of teaching sisters. Again, trusting that God was in control, Cornelia traveled to England with her two youngest children and founded the Society of the Child Jesus. At first the sisters taught poor children in England and later established schools in Europe, the United States and Africa.

The hallmark of her schools, based on her own philosophy and life experiences, became a reverence for the dignity of every human person. Also, contrary to the general mood of the time, she believed schools should resemble homes and the sisters should be loving mothers who treated students with attention and respect.

While she was successful with her new religious order, her husband became deranged. He went to Rome and presented himself as the co-founder of his wife’s order, seeking to have power over her. The news reached Cornelia when a set of Constitutions he drew up reached the English bishops. She had to set everything straight and denied his involvement with the order.

Connelly then went so far as to bring a civil suit against her after he took their children away from her and renounced his priesthood and the Catholic faith. This pained her and she greatly suffered from the estrangement and unfortunate fate of her husband. Connelly proceeded to make a living by writing articles against the Catholic faith.

Through it all Cornelia kept an unwavering trust in God. She wrote in her notebook, “I belong all to God. There is nothing in the world that I would not leave to do His Holy Will and to satisfy Him.”

After her death in 1879 her persevering holiness through such great suffering was an inspiration to many. A cause for her canonization was then opened and in 1992 she was officially declared, “venerable.”

Check out our series on the Saints of the United States.

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