By JEANNE MARIE GUERIN, SHCJ
Two brilliant men encountered each other in Natchez, Mississippi, in the early 1830s. Most likely they met at a social gathering in the home of Major Henry Chotard, a successful planter who owned the lovely Somerset house. Major and Mrs. Chotard and their three daughters were friends of the Connellys, the charming Cornelia Augusta Peacock Connelly and her husband, Pierce, the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church.
When Pierce and Cornelia Connelly arrived in Natchez after their marriage in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1831, they were warmly welcomed into the delightful, ecumenical society that graced this thriving city on the Mississippi River. They already knew about and perhaps shared anti-Catholic feelings current in the Episcopal church. New arrivals of Catholics in the Eastern United States set off a fierce “Nativist” reaction. Pierce Connelly, however, did not distribute anti-Catholic literature to his parishioners of Trinity Episcopal Church. He had a great awakening in gaining the friendship of the distinguished Frenchman, Joseph Nicollet – scholar, scientist and mathematical geographer.
The financial disaster ensuing upon the revolution of 1830 in France brought Nicollet to the United States where he used his talents to the great advantage of this country. Engaged by the United States government as mathematical geographer, he created the esteemed map, Exploring the Upper Mississippi River. Today his work is studied in museums. Schools are named for him, and Nicollet Avenue is a major street in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Nicollet, who was a devout Catholic, spoke about the Native American Movement with Pierce and Cornelia when he visited in Natchez. He explained that much of the fears were unwarranted, based on falsehoods. Nicollet presented the core mysteries of the Catholic faith to both Connellys. Competently, their mentor encouraged them to think about systems of philosophy, politics and morality. He engendered confidence in Pierce to embrace his new thinking. Cornelia, too, accepted new lights, which would lead her, ahead of Pierce, to make profession of faith in the Catholic church.
Joseph Nicollet invited Pierce to go with him to St. Louis to discuss his conversion with Bishop Joseph Rosati, C.M. Not only his conversion to the Catholic faith, but also Pierce’s desire to be ordained a priest figured in their conversation. Rosati welcomed him graciously, recommending that Pierce present his situation to Rome. Upon returning to Natchez, Pierce Connelly assembled his family – Cornelia, their two children, Mercer and Adeline, and their nurse – and brought them to New Orleans en route to Rome.
In New Orleans Cornelia met Bishop Rosati, who valued her. Since the departure of their ship for Europe had been delayed, he received her profession of faith in the Catholic church. This took place in the bishop’s house, the Old Ursuline convent on Chartres Street in the French Quarter, December 8, 1835. The next day, Bishop (later Archbishop) Antoine Blanc gave Cornelia her first Holy Communion in the Catholic church, a few blocks away, in the then Spanish style St. Louis Cathedral.
Armour, Mary Andrew, in collaboration with Ursula Blake and Annette Dawson. Cornelia; The Story of Cornelia Connelly, 1809-1879; Foundress of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. Pompano Beach, FL. Exposition Press of Florida, Inc. c.1979, 1984.
Flaxman, Radegund. A Woman Styled Bold; The Life of Cornelia Connelly, 1809-1879. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1991.
Hanley, Boniface, O.F.M. "The Grace to Know Your Will," in The Anthonian. n.d.
POSITO: DOCUMENTARY STUDY FOR THE CANONIZATION PROCESS OF THE SERVANT OF GOD CORNELIA CONNELLY (née PEACOCK) 1809-1879, ROME, 1987.
Strub, Elizabeth Mary. Yes, Lord, Always Yes. San Diego, CA: Casa Cornelia Publications, first printing January, 2003; second printing February, 2006.
Internet sources include these:
Female authors cited are all members of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus.
St. Mary Basilica Archives thanks Trinity Episcopal Church, Natchez, Mississippi for permission to copy the photographs of Pierce Connelly and Trinity Episcopal Church.