Cornelia Connelly’s Family History of Enslaving People to be Included Across Mayfield Senior’s Four Year Curriculum


CNS illustration/Ellen Cooper, courtesy Society of the Holy Child Jesus

Cornelia Connelly, founder of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, is pictured in an undated painting by Ellen Cooper.

Institutional racism remains a major challenge faced by elite private schools, which are struggling to find solutions. Understanding and acknowledging the scope of this challenge underlies the formulation of solutions. Some of the most prestigious colleges in the world, such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Georgetown have made great strides in tackling this disgrace through a close examination of the racism connected to their founders and their history, and its impact today.

Mayfield Senior School and the Holy Child Network of Schools has initiated a similar process by studying the early life of its revered founder Cornelia Connelly, before she converted to Catholicism and became a nun. AP Art History Teacher and Theology Department Chair, Nora Warren, told The Mayfield Crier that during this past summer a number of faculty and staff at Mayfield Senior School joined with educators from other Holy Child schools to discuss Cornelia and Pierce Connelly’s time in Louisiana and their history of enslaved people working for them. 

Connelly’s early life and its connection to enslaved African Americans had been acknowledged by the Society of the Holy Child Jesus (SHCJ) several decades ago. However, this fact only became more generally known as the result of a research project assigned by Professor Michelle Moravec, an educator at Rosemont College to her students in 2018.

Founded in 1921 by the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, Rosemont College is an independent liberal arts institution in the Catholic tradition located in eastern Pennsylvania. Professor Moravec charged her humanities students to research aspects of Connelly’s past, before she became a nun, that were not as well-known as her later accomplishments. Moravec, herself, had learned from speaking with Sister Rosanne McDougall, archivist of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, that two women, Phoebe and Sally, were enslaved by Connelly and her husband Pierce and had served their family. Professor Moravec shared her findings with then Rosemont College President Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, who had attended Rosemont but had never known of this past.

The research by Moravec and her students led Rosemont President Hirsh to establish the Commission on the Legacy of Slavery. Members of the commission examined documents from SHCJ archives at Rosemont and Oxford, England. The commission produced a final report entitled “Rosemont College: An Account of Connections with Enslaved People” that was submitted to the Rosemont College Archives.

In a recent interview via Zoom, when asked about President Hirsh’s reaction and the commission she established, Sister McDougall recalled that “President Hirsh had never been aware that Cornelia Connelly and her husband had Phoebe and Sally working in their home. I think she was really, really surprised.”  

“Another key element is the fact that within the last several years colleges and universities in the United States have been researching their history to understand how African slave men and women helped their campuses either by having slave owners earn income which was used to build these universities,” Sister McDougall said, explaining the impetus of establishing the commission, “or by the actual work that was done on campus by these enslaved people.”

The commission learned that in 1831 when she was twenty-two years old, Cornelia Peacock married Pierce Connelly, an Episcopalian minister. In 1832 after the birth of Cornelia’s first child, a close family friend, Dr. William Mercer, gifted the Connelly family two enslaved persons: Phoebe Grayson and her daughter, Sarah Goff, who went by the name of Sally. The commission also learned that the Connellys enslaved Phoebe’s grandchildren: George, Mary, and James Henry and two additional individuals, Jenny and Abraham, who were not part of Phoebe’s and Sally’s family. All of these enslaved persons worked for the Connelly family.

In 1838, after their conversion to Catholicism, the Connellys moved to Grand Coteau, Louisiana. In Grand Coteau, the Connellys lived among Catholics who also enslaved people. In 1842, Pierce sold Sally and her children to the Jesuit community at St. Charles College and he gave Phoebe to the Jesuits before returning to Europe to pursue the priesthood.

The commission tracked down Erin Brown, the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Phoebe Grayson and the great-great-great-granddaughter of Sally Gough. Ms. Brown visited Rosemont College to personally thank the members of the commission for their work.

“I want to thank Rosemont for caring enough about the issue to establish a Commission on the Legacy of Slavery,” Erin Brown said according to the Rosemont Magazine Spring 2020 issue.

“The reality is that Phoebe and Sally were gifted to the Connelly family before they converted to Catholicism and were kept until sold after Pierce decided to become a priest in 1842,” the article quoted Brown as having said. “As such, while they were Catholic slave owners, it fortunately does not have bearing on Cornelia after she decided to answer God’s call to become a nun and doesn’t reflect on the SHCJ or the College. Also, when they did sell them, which was done on her husband’s behalf, she at least sold them to the Jesuits so the Goff family could stay together. That is a silver lining on the very dark cloud known as slavery.”

“Cornelia Connelly’s legacy illustrates how the church’s history in America is complicated, but that is why the work the Commission does is worthy of sustained effort, so I hope that it continues,” said Brown.

Students at Mayfield Senior School may not be aware of this history. A member of the Student Diversity Council remarked,

“I believe that it is important to educate our community about the school’s ties to slavery so that we can acknowledge the slaves’ history,” the student said.

“I believe that by ignoring the slaves’ presence, it would seem as if [this fact] was not important, even though it was,” the student said. “I think that we should learn about the slaves Cornelia owned not to shame her, but to recognize and respect the lives of the slaves,” the student added.

Sister McDougall, SHCJ archivist, agreed this significant history should be acknowledged.  

“This new insight that Cornelia Connelly having enslaved women working in her home when she and her husband [were] raising their children seems to be percolating in different parts of the network. So, the feeling was, ‘let’s talk about this among the members of the network and kind of see what comes out from them about in terms of how they want to move forward,” said McDougall.

The fact that Cornelia and Pierce Connelly had enslaved persons working in their home was presented in this year’s 11th grade Theology classes, taught by Theology Department Chair Nora Warren and, also, separately by faculty member Carol Fitzsimmons. 

According to Warren, in her class, “What’s most important on the eleventh grade level are the connections we draw between our study of Catholic social teaching, particularly the infinite worth and dignity of the human person, and working in solidarity for the common good,” said Warren. “In studying the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letters on racism, we examine this injustice to understand how we are called to counteract any injustice that threatens the dignity of any person, or that causes systemic racism.” 

Warren said the classes studied the reality of Cornelia Connelly’s early married life and the enslavement of people. 

“Studying Cornelia Connelly’s history accurately is essential for reconciliation and growth.  We also examine her legacy in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus to understand where her relationship with God led her, and how the Society acts with justice and reconciliation in the world today.” said Warren. “And ultimately, we hope to challenge our students to reflect on how their “actions” can help build a more just and compassionate world in their lifetimes.”

According to Warren, Mayfield Senior School acknowledges “the importance of connecting the study of this aspect of Cornelia Connelly’s life in the context of each course of the four-year Theology curriculum. 

“One that is rooted in history, genuinely concerned about understanding the effects of slavery on people and society as a whole. Particularly as it enlightens students’ understanding of the issues of justice in their contemporary life,” said Warren, “we can move forward as a community of reconciliation, empathy, hope, and faith in our ability to forge a better future.”