European Province Archives: Professions of Cornelia Connelly and Others

‘A light spreading thence all over the world’: the professions of Cornelia Connelly, Mother Maria Cottam and Mother Mary Ambrose Selby.

From the European Province Archives

Despite the global pandemic, the SHCJ’s celebrations of its 175 years over 2020 and 2021 have succeeded in providing moments of reflection on the Society’s past while taking action for the future. The latter involved the gift of trees to Holy Child schools and other places of significance to the Society. During the snow described in the 29th November news, 1846 trees from the SHCJ were still planted by volunteers to create a greener future in Derby. In a similar way, the first small community, in the face of poverty and other hardships, established the roots of the SHCJ’s work in the same city.

Mother Maria Cottam’s illuminated text of Isaiah 9:6.

This Christmas edition of news from the European Province Archives uses items from the object collection as well as the archives to tell the story of two gifts made by SHCJ sisters as they, like Cornelia, took vows to live and serve as members of the Society.

The first item is an illuminated text of a Bible verse read from church to church at this time of year, Isaiah 9:6. The piece is not dated, but a note on the reverse of its original frame states that the artwork was created ‘by Mother Maria Cottam when at school under Mother Foundress’. The item was later donated to Mayfield by M. Maria’s great niece.

M. Maria was clothed on the same day Cornelia Connelly was professed, the 21st December 1847. Cornelia’s notebook of dates and events states that 21 sisters were clothed and 10 professed on this day. It is possible that M. Maria’s artwork was created to celebrate the occasion of the profession and clothing ceremonies. The note stating it was completed when M. Maria was ‘at school’ probably refers to M. Maria’s training as a teacher.

M. Maria came from Blackburn and was the youngest daughter of Cuthbert and Ellen Cottam. Research notes by Jim Lancaster have found that her father Cuthbert appears to be listed in the 1828 and 1830 trade directories as a reed maker, a reed being a component of a mill loom. An Edward Cottam, possibly brother to M. Maria, is listed in 1848 with the same trade.

A letter from M. Maria to one of her brothers survives within Cornelia’s Cause documentation. In the letter, she describes her joy firstly after the occasion of her clothing day and secondly the happiness of being with the poor children of Derby at Christmas:

I cannot express to you the joy I feel at present. I received the veil last Tuesday but one […] On Sunday we had Recreation for the whole day the Feast of the Holy Innocents and we all enjoyed ourselves very much. On Monday Tea was given to all the poor children, about a hundred. What a happy thing to be amongst the Poor and they all enjoyed themselves very much.

M. Maria’s jubilant description of the Community’s Christmas and their work with the children of Derby is all the more striking when compared with the later reminiscences of Sister Austin Beard and Sister Aloysia Walker, both of whom refer to the community’s ‘extreme’ poverty. Cornelia borrowed £10 from Mr Jones after the SHCJ arrived at St Leonards and Sr Aloysia refers to Cornelia wearing ‘with joy’ the patched over ‘rags’ of her shoes as ‘a sweet act of poverty’ when ‘she had only just left every comfort’.

M. Maria’s letter is proof of Sister Aloysia’s view that Cornelia’s ‘beautiful confidence & trust in God’ inspired this small band of SHCJ to never think of failure and remain ‘happy and cheerful’. Sr Aloysia recalls Cornelia making each of her sisters a present during their first Christmas at Derby. She states ‘I have mine yet and look upon it as quite a releque [sic.]’ when writing her reminiscences in 1879.

The Edith Selby (M.M. Ambrose) Monstrance.

M. Maria also finds joy in the midst of sorrow. She writes to her brother for the first time after the death of another brother. M. Maria encourages her brother to accept the loss as God’s will. Nonetheless, when we consider the fact that M. Maria would not have been able to visit her family, we can imagine the difficulty of this separation for both brother and sister. M. Maria was only 20 years of age at the time.

Another special item from the object collection is also linked to a specific SHCJ sister. This is an exquisite monstrance that, from the inscription within its inner base, we know was a gift to the Society from Edith Selby. The object has been recently catalogued as part of a repackaging project for the collections. It is dated 8th December 1888, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the day of Edith’s profession, who took Mary Ambrose as her name in Religion. The annals of 1888 note this day and her ‘beautiful gift’ to the society.

M.M. Ambrose’s ministry was largely teaching the juniors at St Leonards, where she started as a class mistress and went on to become Junior Prefect. An orphan from the age of four, M. M. Ambrose was raised by her aunt and uncle, a Mr Whitgrave who had known Cornelia Connelly during her days in Rome. M.M. Ambrose was educated at St Leonards for four years while Cornelia lived. She had fond memories of Mother Aloysia Frankish who served as Prefect while M.M. Ambrose was a schoolgirl. In turn, M.M. Ambrose herself was loved by old girls who continued to visit her. The necrology observes how M.M. Ambrose’s ‘strong personality’ held both children and nuns ‘in awe’ of her.

M.M. Ambrose and three Old Girls at St Leonards.

Amongst Cornelia’s early spiritual notebooks is a book of meditations dating from 1842 to approximately 1848. In here we have a passage written by Cornelia prior to her own profession on 21st December 1847. She begins:

I am about to prepare myself before God to make the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience according to the spirit & to the letter of our rule.

The note continues by allowing leave for obedience to adjust with any changes ‘which may be considered necessary’ by those that Cornelia has turned to for direction and advice.

However, even these changes must be ‘tending to a greater good’ and only enacted after ‘due consideration and prayer by their advice and my own consent’. Cornelia’s concerns and resolutions seem especially prescient at this time, the beginning of her life as a professed religious, given the painful disputes ahead and the sad fact that Cornelia would never see the Rule approved by Rome in her lifetime.

A page of a book with writing Description automatically generated with low confidence

In the same notebook, a page which dates sometime after the Society’s arrival at St Leonards-on-Sea includes a drawing by Cornelia of a monstrance flanked by two praying angels. The text that follows describes a meditation practiced by Cornelia: S’imaginer que l’on s’approche de la table Sainte et que N.S [Notre Seigneur] descend du ciel sur C’autel au milieu des choeurs des anges’ (imagine that one approaches the holy table and that Our Lord descends the altar from heaven in the midst of a chorus of angels).

Page from Cornelia’s 1842- 1848 Spiritual Notebook (‘B’). The drawing of the angels and the monstrance appears very faintly above the text.

The image from Cornelia’s notebook is all the more striking given the origin of the St Leonards Chapel’s dedication to St Michael and All Angels. The annals record that Cornelia had a ‘conviction that that the Convent was under the special protection of the great Archangel’. Cornelia had a dream during the first days of the SHCJ in St Leonards:

‘St. Michael appeared standing above the tower looking into the front garden, & a light was seen in the church spreading thence over all the World.’

Cornelia’s dream would come to pass in her lifetime as schools were established in America and France. It would be still more fully realised as sisters joined her community from countries and states across West Africa, Europe and the Americas, alongside foundations made in Africa, Ireland and South America. In this week of the Jubilee of Cornelia and her fellow Derby sisters, we can reflect on the many kinds of gifts given and received by the Society. We can also think of the many sisters across the three provinces who have each dedicated their lives to the SHCJ’s mission and made Cornelia’s dream a reality.

Best wishes for a joyful Christmas and a happy new year to all SHCJ sisters, associates, schools, staff and friends from the SHCJ European Province Archives.

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