First Place; Pure Gold; the Supreme and Unsurpassed, Ruling and Reigning Queen of Unchosen States of Life

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December 15, 2012 by lucieromarin

First place?

It goes to the Venerable Cornelia Connelly. If you’re feeling that the Church has messed with your life, deal with her life for a second:

1) Cornelia was a 22-year-old Episcopalian when she married her fiance, Pierce, in 1831; he was an Episcopalian minister. She had no secret interest in Catholicism, but when Pierce, in 1835, renounced his orders in the interest of studying Catholicism, she followed his lead; they were both Catholic by 1836. (She was received into the Church first; he insisted on waiting until he could experience the ceremony in Rome.)

2) There followed some years of happiness; by now, Cornelia had five children, one deceased. In 1840, she prayed, “My God, if all this happiness is not to Thy greater glory and the good of my soul, take it from me. I make the sacrifice.” The next day, her youngest son was pushed into scalding liquid in a sugar boiler, and took three days to die in her arms.

3) Then, her husband went on retreat. When he returned, he told her that he was called to the priesthood, that they both must commit to immediate celibacy, and they must expect to separate in the future. He wasn’t discussing it; he was telling her his plans. She was young, not only in years but young in the faith; she’d promised to obey her husband; she was grieving for one child and expecting another; she did ask him to change his mind, but, when he remained steadfast, she did not fight.

4) Pope Gregory XVI granted the petition of separation; he ruled that the children would be sent to boarding schools and that Cornelia would become a nun, remaining a postulant until her new baby no longer needed her (obviously, he did not mean ‘no longer needed’ in a contemporary pro-life way!)

5) By 1846, Bishop Wiseman had noticed Cornelia Connelly, and asked her to found a teaching order in Britain. She had very little experience of religious life, but she obeyed, directing her energies to the new Society of the Holy Child Jesus. For Pierce, this was a problem. His hoped-for career as a Catholic convert-celebrity-priest had not appeared; he found he disliked being separated from Cornelia, and did not like seeing her throwing herself into a work that did not involve him, though he tried to make it do so (even travelling to Rome to try to convince the Vatican to let him overrule her ideas for the Order, which he had never been asked to found!)

6) Pierce then gained custody of the children and took them to Italy. Cornelia knew she would only ever see them again if she left her religious order (which, you’ll remember, she never wanted to found.) She chose obedience to God’s Will as expressed through the Bishop, and renounced her children.

7) Pierce left the Church. He, who had first suggested she become Catholic, and he, for whose vocation she had given up her own and taken on a religious life she never wanted, was now a Protestant. He also turned all of her children against her, and one of them – who was utterly traumatised as a child by his parent’s separation and the bullying he endured at boarding school as the freak kid with a priest-dad and nun-mother – died young and unhealed.

8) In 1851, Pierce sued Cornelia for restitution of conjugal rights. The case was infamous; anti-Catholic Britain loved the sensational story, and she could now add public humiliation to the daily trials she was suffering as a Foundress. (Her work, too, had its enemies; for example, one chaplain assigned to her turned out to be spying on them and reporting to her detractors, in the hope of closing them down! Other trials included one bishop appointing himself the Superior of her institute in order to overrule her decisions!).

9) Pierce spent the rest of his life writing anti-Catholic tracts, many of them directed at the wife he had abandoned. Cornelia laboured for her Order for 33 years, and died in 1879.

When one of Connelly’s students asked her if she was ever unhappy, she answered, “The tears are always running down behind my nose.” She never wanted to be separated from her husband, to become a nun, to give up her children, or to found a religious community; these were all the decisions of other people. She could not even console herself with the thought that her sacrifice had enabled her husband to live a full and holy life as a priest. Her life shows us that it is absolutely possible for a Catholic to end up in a state of life she never wanted; that this can happen, not despite Catholics and the Church, but because of them; that there is no single, easy vocation-discernment process that can sidestep these griefs, and that the state of life to which you never felt the slightest calling may yet be the one that makes you a giant of holiness and a mother and teacher of souls.

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