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Cornelia Connelly (January 15, 1809 – April 18, 1879), born Cornelia Peacock, was the American-born founder of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, a Roman Catholic religious order. She was born in Philadelphia in 1809, began her conversion to Roman Catholicism in the southern US, and in 1846 founded the first of many Holy Child schools, in England.
After both her parents' deaths, she came to live with her older sister and her sister's husband. She married Pierce Connelly, an Episcopal priest, despite her family's protests, in December 1831, and the two moved to Natchez, Mississippi, where Pierce had accepted the rectorship of the Holy Trinity Episcopal church. During this time their family grew, and experienced tragedy. In early 1840, still grieving the death of a baby daughter while living in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, Cornelia made her first retreat of three days. God touched her deeply, and her interior life was profoundly changed. In February, her two-year old son John Henry was playing with his dog when the dog accidentally pushed him into a vat of boiling sugar. He died of severe burns in Cornelia's arms after 43 hours. From this anguish Cornelia's lifelong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary as Mother of Sorrows was born.
Pregnant with her fifth child in October of the same year, Pierce told her he felt called to the priesthood. Despite their youth, Cornelia agreed to move to Rome. Soon afterward Rev. Connelly elected to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood, where in July 1845 Pierce was ordained. After considerable prayer and soul-searching, Cornelia too found a calling to serve God. She went with just two of her children to Rome hoping to join the Society of the Sacred Heart. With a higher ordained priest's help she applied to create a new religious education order, shortly thereafer approved by Pope Gregory XVI.
In 1846, the new Foundress, with her two youngest children and three companions, arrived in Derby. The Society of the Holy Child Jesus had begun. Its beginning was small and there were many deprivations, but a spirit of joy and peace prevailed; Cornelia was able to inspire in her sisters something of her own serenity in adversity. Soon they were running schools for the poor and needy, and holding day, night, and Sunday classes to accommodate the young factory workers. The order, whose constitution is based on that of the Jesuits, remains devoted to teaching young women, and operates schools primarily in the United States.
As her Society grew and her work in education flourished, great personal anguish returned when Pierce renounced his priesthood and his Catholic faith and came to England to regain custody of their children. He removed them from the schools they were attending and denied Cornelia all contact with them, hoping thus to force her to return to him as his wife. He even pressed a lawsuit against her that gained notoriety in England, but the courts rejected his claim after a retrial.
Cornelia Connelly died on 18 April 1879, at St Leonards-on-Sea, Sussex, where she had established a school. Today, the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus are active in fourteen countries, striving to live the apostolic life as Cornelia did, seeking to meet the wants of the age through works of spiritual mercy. They are engaged in education and related spiritual and pastoral ministries.
In 1992, the Catholic Church proclaimed Cornelia as Venerable.