The religious society founded by the Venerable Mother Cornelia Connelly has defended its plans to exhume her remains and transfer a part of them to a new tomb at the Catholic cathedral of Philadelphia.
The Congregation for the Causes of the Saints in Rome has given a special permission for the exhumation of Cornelia’s remains in response to a request made by the Archbishop of Philadelphia and the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, whichwas founded by Philadelphia-born Mother Cornelia in England in 1846.
As The Tablet reported, hundreds of Catholics are protesting at the proposed exhumation of Mother Connelly, who is buried in the historic 14th century chapel at Mayfield School, the top Catholic girls' boarding school. Mother Cornelia was declared Venerable in 1992 and is on the path to canonisation.
In a press release today, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus noted that Cornelia Connelly was born in Philadelphia and spent her childhood in America.
A convert to Catholicism, who had been married and had five children, she moved to England aged 37. She died in 1879 and was buried in the Convent Cemetery at Mayfield, East Sussex.
Her remains were later exhumed and moved to Mayfield Convent Chapel in 1935. “It is a practice of the Catholic Church that the body of a person being considered for sainthood should be moved to enable veneration by the faithful,” the society said.
Mother Cornelia, who has been declared venerable and is on the path to canonisation, retained strong links with America throughout her life.
In 2017 two Sisters met with the Archbishop of Philadelphia to request his support in promoting Cornelia’s cause. This led to the suggestion that a place of veneration would be set up in the Catholic cathedral in Philadelphia.
The society said: “It is hoped that her remains will provide an important focus for veneration at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, the place of her birth. Remains would also be retained at Mayfield School, continuing the long tradition of the veneration of the foundress by Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, members of the school community and others who come to the chapel for prayer.”
A representative from the Society of the Holy Child Jesus said: “We are saddened by any pain and upset this move causes. The society believes that by being in the cathedral, alongside Saint Katherine Drexel, another Philadelphia founder, Cornelia’s life, legacy and our charism will have the potential to be recognised, seen and shared by a larger number of people, allowing a greater spotlight on her work and cause for canonisation.”
Cornelia Connelly’s living relatives have been consulted about the exhumation and have given their support to the move, the society said.
Speaking on behalf of Cornelia’s family, Francesco Vanni d'Archirafi, great-grandson of her son Frank, said: “As descendants of Cornelia, we are humbled by the extraordinary legacy that she has left us and the international interest in progressing her work and her canonisation. We admire the impact that Mayfield and the Holy Child Jesus Schools have had for the last 175 years and are convinced these schools can provide much more to girls in the UK and around the globe.”
The society stated that the exhumation would be carried out “prayerfully with dignity and respect”, at a time that is appropriate to the life of the school, with the Historic Churches Commission ensuring that the appropriate care is given both the remains of Cornelia Connelly and the fabric of the chapel, which is a Grade 1 listed building.
A licence has already been granted by the Ministry of Justice. An application has been lodged with Wealden District Council and Historic Catholic Churches for an opening to be made below ground level in the side wall of the Grade 1 listed chapel at Mayfield School, through which the coffin of Mother Cornelia would be extracted and returned. Any objections have to be notified before 4 March.
Among those protesting are members of the The Cornelian Association, for former pupils at the society's schools including Mayfield.The association said that pressure was growing to “put a stop” to the “macabre” proposal.
The association said that the cathedral in Philadelphia is preparing a tomb for her remains, and has already announced that she is “coming home”, before any of the former pupils of the school even knew of these plans, and before anyone at Mayfield was aware of the application.
In a statement today, the association said: “There is no need for a second tomb. The application does not provide the requisite justification for a ‘need’ for such desecration. It is imprecise as to the damage it might cause to a 14th century Grade1 listed building, nor does it take into account the potential for reputational harm to the school, and the grief and fury of generations of past pupils who love this chapel, know all about the woman who created it and whose lives have been enhanced and validated by the wisdom of her teaching.
“The gathering of relics, even of saints (which, officially, Cornelia is not) is virtually obsolete, and seldom practised in the modern church. Most people now regard it as a distasteful mediaeval custom, an embarrassment which they had assumed had long since been confined to pre-Reformation history
“And, more than that, such a proposition runs directly contrary to her own frequently expressed wishes. Mayfield, she often said, is where she wished to be buried, ‘among the Anglo Saxon saints’.
“Hundreds of people, past and present pupils, their parents and many others, have already registered their objections in the strongest terms. As one of them said, ‘we were taught to revere Cornelia, not to dig her up’.’