A Woman Styled Bold by Radegunde Flaxman (Darton, Longman and Todd, £30) Peter Stanford
WITH few married women in the company of saints of the Catholic church Cornelia Connelly's exploits should be better known and indeed venerated. The American-born founder of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus was a remarkable and fiercely independent woman.
Radegunde Flaxman's detailed and wholly approving biography — unsurprisingly since the author is a member of the order Cornelia Connelly founded — tells an inspiring story in understated terms that do not detract from the drama of what was a turbulent life. It all started conventionally enough — with the young Cornelia, scion of one of America's more prosperous families, marrying the dashing, if poor, Pierce Connelly, an Episcopalian (Anglican) minister. Together in the 1830s they devoted themselves to parish work and family.
However, by the early 1840s showing the first signs of a later restlessness and ability to change course with profligate regularity, Pierce decided he wanted to be a Catholic.
His ultimate aim was to be a priest, whatever that might cost his young family. For such a course to be allowed the Vatican insisted that he separate formally from his wife, and that she take a vow of celibacy.
Cornelia, who by now had also converted, agreed somewhat reluctantly and entered a Rome convent with her two youngest children, while the eldest was sent to school in England.
No sooner had she settled there than she was on the move again, following Pierce to the land of his current dreams, England, and setting up there a convent in Derby where her work in educating the poor was under the patronage of Wiseman.
Pierce's vocation did not last long, and by 1846 he had decided the priesthood was not for him. With his usual unthinking arrogance, he headed for Derby to collect Cornelia.
However, by now her faith and commitment to the mission
she had started was such that she declined to follow him. Refused entry to the Derby
convent, he resorted to kidnapping their children to force his wife to comply with his wishes. Her resolve unbreakable, he then applied in the English courts for the restitution of his conjugal rights.
It was a time when the cry of
"No Popery" was still to be heard on English streets, and the Connelly case caught the public's imagination. A lower court found in Pierce's and the mob's favour, ruling that legal documents signed in Rome regarding the separation were not valid in Protestant England.
It was two years before the higher court overturned this judgement.
Once the court case was finally settled Cornelia set about writing the constitution of her new order and spreading its work through England and beyond. An unconventional figure herself, she attracted others of similar backgrounds.
This in turn created difficulties with the bishops, who wished to keep a close control over Cornelia Connelly and her followers. As her husband had tried to manipulate her through exploiting her love for her children, so the hierarchy used her concern for her fledgling order to exert influences on her.
In both cases Cornelia Connelly resisted and triumphed..
As with Oscar Romero and Mother Teresa, for whom sainthood had come through popular acclaim, so too with Cornelia Connelly perhaps now that Radegunde Flaxman has brought this extraordinary woman to prominence.