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Nun's bones to stay in Sussex after objections to exhumation plans

Harriet Sherwood
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Paul Carstairs/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Paul Carstairs/Alamy

The bones of a 19th-century nun will remain undisturbed after plans to move relics to the US to boost her chances of becoming a saint were abandoned by the religious order she founded.

Hundreds of people had formally objected to the exhumation proposal, and almost 1,500 people signed an online petition against moving bones of the Venerable Mother Cornelia Connelly from a Grade I listed chapel in Sussex to a cathedral in Philadelphia.

Now the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, a global congregation of nuns founded by Connelly in 1846, has withdrawn its application to exhume the remains.

In a terse statement, the society said: “A decision has been made to withdraw the application to the Historic Churches Commission for the exhumation of the Venerable Cornelia Connelly.”

Approval to make an opening below ground level in a wall of the 14th-century chapel was required from the Catholic Historic Churches Commission, a heritage body, and Wealden district council.

Connelly was declared venerable in 1992, the first step towards becoming a saint. After an appeal to the archbishop of Philadelphia – where she was born and raised – to support the push for canonisation, it was agreed to relocate some of her remains to the US city’s Catholic cathedral.

The Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, the Vatican department that oversees the canonisation process, had given special permission for the exhumation following a request from the society and the archbishop.

After her death in 1879, Connelly was buried in a cemetery at her convent in the village of Mayfield, in East Sussex, but her remains were exhumed and moved to the chapel at Mayfield school in 1935. Now a leading Catholic girls’ boarding school, Mayfield was founded by the society a few years before Connelly died.

Antonia Beary, the school’s headteacher, contacted former pupils earlier this month, warning of the “considerable physical disruption to the chapel building”.

She said: “Cornelia asked to be buried in Mayfield and there should be no doubt that we will continue to value her presence, rely on her intercession and honour her wishes insofar as we are able and permitted.”

Related: Plan to move Sussex nun's bones to US faces local opposition

The Cornelian Association of former pupils described the proposal as “macabre”. The proposal did not “take into account the potential for reputational harm to the school, and the grief and fury of generations of past pupils who love this chapel, know all about the woman who created it and whose lives have been enhanced and validated by the wisdom of her teaching,” it said.

It added: “The gathering of relics, even of saints (which, officially, Cornelia is not) is virtually obsolete, and seldom practised in the modern church. Most people now regard it as a distasteful medieval custom.”

The society earlier said it hoped that Connelly’s remains would “provide an important focus for veneration at the cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, the place of her birth. Remains would also be retained at Mayfield school.”