Anniversary of the Decree Naming Cornelia Connelly Venerable

13 June, 2024

On 13th June 1992, Pope John Paul II gave a decree naming the heroic virtues of Cornelia Connelly. The decree states explicitly that Cornelia not only demonstrated the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, but also practiced the cardinal virtues of ‘prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude and those linked with them in a heroic degree.’

An official copy of the 1992 Decree

As Sr Mary Buckley explained in an 1989 newsletter, this decree of heroicity of virtues was the first of three main stages of the canonization process, the latter two being beatification and canonization. Even this first stage was broken down into the hearings of firstly the historical and secondly the theological commission. As Sr Mary Ann writes in 1989, the SHCJ had been warned that even the scheduling of the consideration took years. However, Sr Mary Ann reminds her fellow SHCJ ‘as we wait for the universal church to honor this woman we know to be holy’ [Sr Mary Ann’s emphasis] the time spent in anticipation was a ‘fruitful’ opportunity to ‘let our lives be deeply encouraged and challenged by her extraordinary holiness’. In September 1991, Sr Mary Ann wrote a further update bearing excellent news. The theological commission had met on 25th June to discuss and vote on Cornelia’s Cause and Peter Gumpel SJ (Relator for the Cause) reported that ‘the theologians were enthusiastic and unanimous in their support’. It was after this recommendation that the College of Cardinals and Pope John Paul II decided to approve and sign the decree a year later.

How had Cornelia’s cause finally reached this stage? As a 1958 report to the General chapter describes, it was a long process that started from the leadership of Mother Mary Francis Tolhurst who supported Mother Mary Catherine Gompertz’s creation of the 1922 biography. Following this, Mother Mary Amadeus Atchison and Mother Mary Imelda Whitehead visited Grand Cocteau to trace recollections of Cornelia there. Mother St John McMaster and Mother Mary Berchmans White also made ‘invaluable investigations about Reverend Mother Foundress’ family and early life in America’.

These efforts were to be dashed by strong objections raised by the Postulator Padre Agostino who stated that the lack of surviving firsthand witnesses and biographical accounts of Mother Maria Joseph Buckle and Mother Mary Francis Bellasis was meagre evidence and that an attempt to start the Cause process would be ‘useless’. Even after the 1946 SHCJ centenary revived enthusiasm to pursue the Cause once more, the Archbishop of Southwark refused to support the SHCJ’s efforts. He even hinted that there would be ‘sinister revelations’ that would damage the memory of Cornelia and the SHCJ’s reputation should historical material from the Southwark Archives be brought to light.

However, Archbishop Amigo’s successor, Bishop Cowderoy, felt very differently towards the SHCJ and Cornelia’s Cause. He was ‘most anxious to help in this as well as in other matters dependent on his good will’.

Now that the SHCJ found they finally had favorable conditions in which to embark on their endeavor, it was decided at the 1952 General Chapter that ‘definite steps’ should now be taken. With the support of not only Bishop Cowderoy but also archivists of the Vatican Secret Archives, the assistance of Monsignor Cocchetti and the approval Father Antonelli (the former using tactics to persuade the latter such as leaving Cornelia’s biography on Father Antonelli’s desk and in his suitcase!) as well as other individuals in Rome and beyond, the laborious yet fulfilling process of gathering archival material began.

A room was set up in the Mayfield convent, Mother Agnes Domitilla, Mother Mary Malachy, a group of dauntless Tertians (third year novices) and others ‘brought order out of the chaos of unsorted bundles of letters, notebooks, photostats and loose papers’. In America, Mother Marie Madeleine and others gathered precious information and Mother Mary Clara studied the SHCJ Archives in Rome. Father Rogers SJ and Father Walsh SJ took on the roles of historical Commissioner and Diocesan Postulator respectively. The Borghese family gave permission to the Society to search their archives and Cornelia’s granddaughter, Princess Marina Borghese was ‘most co-operative’ lending a family album that ‘has thrown much light on the time spent in Rome by Cornelia and Pierce’.

Through these combined efforts – that we might describe as heroic in themselves – Cornelia was finally officially recognised as the woman of Heroic Virtue her Society had always known her to be.

With special thanks to Sister Teresa Okure for her translation of the 1992 Decree.

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