Hundreds of Catholics are protesting at the proposed exhumation of a nun buried in an historic 14th century chapel at a top Catholic girls' boarding school.
The Venerable Mother Cornelia Connelly, who was born in 1809 in Philadelphia and died in 1879 in England, was married and had five children when her husband converted to Catholicism. She took her own vows as a nun and suffered many tragic years of heartbreak as well as the break-up of her family in the conflict with her former husband that ensued. She moved to England and devoted herself to education, was declared Venerable in 1992 and is on the path to canonisation.
She founded Mayfield School in 1872 in the beautiful 14th century Old Palace at Mayfield which was presented to the society by Louisa Caton, Duchess of Leeds. Mother Cornelia had explicitly stated her wish to be buried at Mayfield.
Sr Angela O’Connor, of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, has applied to Catholic Historic Churches for an “opening” to be made below ground level in the side wall of the historic chapel at Mayfield Girls School, a leading Catholic boarding school in East Sussex. The application however originated with the leadership team, under the direction of Sister Veronica Openibo.
According to the application, the coffin of the American-born foundress, Mother Cornelia Connelly, “will be extracted and later returned through an opening made in the side wall of the chapel below ground level”. The aim is to remove a portion of her body and transfer it to a new tomb, at Philadelphia Catholic Cathedral.
The cathedral has already posted a statement on its website, announcing: “The sacred remains of the foundress of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, Venerable Cornelia Connelly, soon will be translated from England to a new tomb in our Cathedral Basilica. Venerable Cornelia Connelly is a native Philadelphian and her cause for canonisation is well underway. Her tomb will be located in the rear of the Basilica on the Race Street side.”
The Southern Historic Churches Committee has received 120 representations objecting to the proposed exhumation.
A petition has also been launched, signed already by more than 200 objectors.
The petition refers to the request for the exhumation of the remains of Mother Cornelia Connelly, from her chosen resting place in the Grade 1 listed Chapel at Mayfield East Sussex.
“This is the Chapel she restored, in the school she created and the place she CHOSE to be buried.
“The SHCJ would like her exhumed, her body divided up and a portion interred in the cathedral in Philadelphia...(.although leaving a "Substantial part" at Mayfield ?!?) a plan they have already publicised as occurring this summer.
“Quite aside from the unnecessary exhumation and dividing of human remains, this work will be prohibitively expensive and will involve massive disruption to a medieval building and its surrounding grounds as the precise location of the remains is unknown.
The author Cesca Sims writes: “I, like thousands of girls and women before me, went to Mayfield and worshipped in that Chapel. I like many many others posted our private intercessions on tiny scraps of paper and placed them around Mother Connelly's effigy.
“I simply cannot see what is to be gained by this treating of a Venerable woman like a commodity. In an age when so many are struggling simply to survive, Cornelia herself, perhaps would feel that the colossal amount of money and effort needed would be best spent elsewhere.”
Mother Cornelia Connelly (pic: unknown author, public domain, Wiki).
In one letter of protest, one former Mayfield pupil says: “As an Old Cornelian, I am shocked and dismayed to learn of proposals to exhume the remains (or parts thereof) of Mother Cornelia Connelly for transfer to the Cathedral Basilica of SS Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, USA.
“Such a proposal blatantly contravenes Mother Connelly's wishes for her body to remain at Mayfield, as foundress of the School, which itself continues to stand as an active emblem of her life's work.
“The school's ethos is synonymous with Cornelia Connelly herself, as it continues to venerate her legacy through its active promotion of Cornelia's values among its pupils today. To erode this relationship by removal of her remains threatens not only to weaken Cornelia's legacy at Mayfield but also risks considerable reputational damage to the school through adverse publicity, which is likely to link the school to this distasteful and absurd proposal.
“Without Cornelia Connelly, the Mayfield Chapel (whose historical significance is acknowledged through a Grade 1-listing) would not exist today, as she was uniquely responsible for driving the building's architectural reconstruction forward from its previous state of dereliction. Her body is therefore now part of the intangible heritage of the building being part of the meaning of the Foundation which she created around the Chapel.
“Finally, it would seem that the proposal is highly incompatible with current times, where the long-term impact of Covid-19 continues to drive many Catholic organisations to prioritise supporting the needs of disadvantaged people all over the world (rather than focusing on unnecessary and expensive projects) something Cornelia Connelly would herself encouraged, as engendered in her motto: ‘Actions Not Words’.”
Among the protesters is David Pinnegar, the restorer of Hammerwood Park near East Grinstead, also Grade 1 listed, built by Benjamin Henry Latrobe in 1792 who went to the United States in 1795 and in 1806 commenced upon the building of Baltimore Cathedral, now downgraded to Basilica, the first Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States.
He wrote: “It is with dismay that I have come to learn of the Ecclesiastical proposals to remove part of a body from the foundations of an English chapel and institution. I should like to remind you that the Chapel is Grade 1 listed of Historic and Architectural interest.”
He notes that Benjamin Latrobe also designed the city water supply in Philadelphia, designing some classical buildings there and which were copied by the whole of the city. He complained of such. “In reverting to the dark days of mediaeval practices of moving bits of body and bone around to put in feretories it's a gross pity that Philadelphia has not copied Latrobe's example of light at Baltimore.
“Indeed our architectural Patron of Catholicism in the USA would be turning in his grave at being associated with such dark, retrograde and anachronistic practices.
“Whilst Our Lord himself defended Mary Magdalene's action in expenditure of expensive oil to anoint his feet in the light of the plight of the needy, in this Covid year history will not look kindly upon His Catholic followers expending significant sums digging up and robbing the grave of one of his devotees to fly across the pond unimaginable.”
He continues: “In connexion with near 40 years experience in heritage preservation I advise on such and am a member of ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites which advises UNESCO on such matters. Of concern to ICOMOS is what is known as Intangible Heritage
and I am copying this email to the Chairman of the committee.”
He writes: “Cornelia's bones, her body, her remains, are in the physical foundation of the building. As such they are part of the physical building and were so when the building was listed Grade 1. As such her body is part of the building as a matter of law and to which legal protection is appropriate as part of the heritage. Any decision by the HCC which does not give appropriate weight to such ignores the duty of the HCC in the protection of the heritage and could be subject to Judicial Review.
“But more than being merely part of the physical building, the structure that exists was in ruins and exists only on account of her intervention together with Pugin of renowned gothic architectural heritage. Her actions, not just her presence, are an intrinsic part of the building.
“Furthermore, around the building she founded the institution of a school and for which, and to all the pupils of which, she represents the foundation of very many people's lives.
“For any part of her to be removed from her resting place in her Chapel would represent a change of character of the listed building as a matter of law, and be grossly abhorrent in terms of preservation of any historical site.
“Finally, there is a Sussex superstition of which Philadelphia should be appraised. St Dunstan was a blacksmith at Mayfield. The Devil tempted him one day and he tweaked the Devil's nose with his red-hot tongs. The Devil took off and flew over Sussex with his nose bleeding, leaving all the rivers in Sussex to run with the Devil's blood. It would be appropriate to those wishing for a part of Sussex to be exported to the USA that perhaps they might not like any part of the Devil's Blood to be tainting the Cathedral at Philadelphia. The notoriety achieved by the Catholic administration in Philadelphia would be just as powerful as any Devil's Blood.
“The matter has already achieved some attention on Social Media: I would respectfully suggest that the application to the HCC is withdrawn as a matter of urgency before news and outrage in the United Kingdom reaches further, let alone the press as I submit to you in the cold light of day that the matter would not be received well in the public eye and would do very great damage to Catholicism and indeed to so-called Christianity itself. It would be so very much more politic for the proposal to be withdrawn than any decision by the committee have to be reached and registered.”
The Tablet has emailed the European branch of the society requesting a comment.