Cornelia Connelly, S.H.C.J.

Since March 8th is International Women's Day, it felt right to share the story of one of Philadelphia’s own: Cornelia Connelly, Foundress of the Society of the Holy Child of Jesus. Cornelia Augusta Peacock Connelly was born on January 15, 1809, to Ralph Peacock and Mary Swope Bowen. Tragedy struck in 1818 when Cornelia’s father died, followed by her older brother Dodsworth in 1822 and mother in 1823. By fourteen, she lost her close family and was adopted by her stepsister Isabella Bowen and her husband Austin Montgomery.

Growing up, Cornelia went with her parents on Sundays to Second Presbyterian Church at Third and Arch streets. She continued to frequent the congregation until 1831, when she was baptized into the Episcopal Church at Saint Stephen’s on Tenth Street. It is uncertain as to why she chose the Episcopal Church, whether through the influence of her adopted family, “or that of the Reverend James Montgomery, Austin’s brother, or through the influence of the handsome Pierce Connelly, a colleague of James in the Episcopal ministry.” [1] Despite protests from Isabella, Cornelia married Pierce on December 1, 1831. 

Following the marriage, Reverend Connelly was offered to lead a congregation at Holy Trinity in Natchez, Mississippi. At the time, Catholicism was going through a revival in the Mississippi Valley: old orders such as the Society of Jesus was restored and new missionary orders, such as the Society of the Sacred Heart, came from Europe with a new missionary zeal. However, with revival comes protests. A large wave of anti-Catholicism overtook the area to “save the Valley from the Pope!” [2] Appalled by the vitriol of his Protestant brethren, Pierce left the Anglican priesthood and travelled to Saint Louis at the urging of his friend Joseph Nicolett. Cornelia, aware of the attacks on Catholics, also took time to learn about the faith and found herself drawn to the beliefs. Once Pierce discussed conversion to Roman Catholicism and the possibility of priesthood with Bishop Rosati of Saint Louis, the decision was made for the family to travel to Rome. They left Natchez in November 1835 to begin their trip with their two children: Mercer and Adeline. 

After forty-seven days at sea and a stop in southern France, the Connellys final reached Rome in February 1836. They quickly integrated into local society and were frequent visitors of the influential Borghese family and Englishman John Talbot, the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, who became Pierce’s sponsor for the Sacraments. Pierce, who wanted to become a Catholic priest, asked around Rome how to start the process. Even though there were rare exceptions for married priests, it was suggested by Vatican officials that “his usefulness would prove greater as a married man than as a priest.” [3] After the birth of their third child John Henry, the couple returned to the United States.  

In Grand Coteau, Louisiana, the Connellys found work: Pierce became a teacher at the Jesuit College of Saint Charles and Cornelia gave music lessons at the Convent of the Sacred Heart. During this time, Cornelia went on many retreats, performing the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius and creating a Rule of life to follow. However, the bliss that surrounded the couple would soon be lost. John Henry, their second son, died in a tragic accident. A fourth child, Mary Magdalen, was born a year after they came back America, but died in infancy. The teaching career of Pierce did not last long, as he decided to enter the priesthood and asked Cornelia, who was five months pregnant, to agree to celibacy.  Years later, on a retreat with the religious order she founded, Cornelia said that “the Feast of Saint Edward marked the beginning of the Society of the Holy Child of Jesus and that it was founded on a broken heart.”  [4]

Because he was married, approval for Pierce to become a priest had to come directly from Rome, and Connelly had to accompany him there to sign a petition for separation. Before leaving Louisiana, conflicted Cornelia offered her husband an opportunity to change his mind and reconcile the marriage. He remained steadfast in his desire to join the priesthood even if it meant splitting up the family. In the fall of 1843, Connelly and her husband presented their petition to Pope Gregory XVI, and the following spring they were granted a Deed of Separation. Pierce began his ecclesiastical studies, and Connelly, who had become a postulant in America, remained true to her calling and entered the Sacred Heart convent at Trinità dei Monti in Rome. Mercer and Adeline were at boarding school, but Connelly was able to keep Francis, the couple’s fifth child, with her. 

Because of her talent for teaching and compassion for children, Cornelia was handpicked to start a convent school in Derby, England. By now she was accustomed to following God's orders for her life, so she packed up the children and went to Derby. Rather than join an established order, it was Connelly's mission to start a new order which she called the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. As Superior, she and the nuns that joined her opened a boarding school for girls with a full curriculum including English, foreign languages, social studies, arithmetic, music, art, and needlework. Schools were later set up around England, as well as Europe, Africa, and the United States. Here in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, four educational institutions have been connected to the Society of the Holy Child of Jesus: Rosemont College, Holy Child School in Rosemont, Holy Child Academy in Sharon Hill (closed in 1973) and St. Leonard’s School of the Holy Child in Philadelphia (closed in 1983).

The main convent was moved from Derby to Saint Leonards-on-Sea, Sussex, in 1848. Cornelia spent most of her time at this convent-school. While at Saint Leonards-on-Sea, foundress Cornelia Connelly passed into eternal life on April 18, 1879, and is interred there. In 1992. She was declared “Venerable” by Pope Saint John Paul II. 

At the Catholic Historical Research Center, we have a few pamphlets and books about Venerable Cornelia Connelly, SCHJ, mostly written by members of her religious order. For more information, contact us and we will be glad to assist you.  


[1] Mary Andrew Armour, Cornelia: The Story of Cornelia Connelly, 1809-1879, Foundress of the Society of the Holy Child of Jesus (United States of America: Doubleday & Company, 1977), 7, P018.386

[2] Ibid, 13

[3] Sister Annette Dawson, S.H.C.J., Cornelia Connelly: Three Characteristics (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1979), 2, P012.0442

[4] Ibid, 3


Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.