Why Am I Still A Part Of This Church?

How the inspiration of a 19th century woman's incredible life helps me keep the faith

We would, of course, roll our eyes. That’s what teenage girls do when being told something for the millionth time. Still, repetition does have its effect, and so when our teachers at our small all-girls school run by the Sisters of the Holy Child in suburban New Jersey reminded us of how we were meant to “meet the wants of the age”
—one of the many mottos of the order’s Foundress, Cornelia Connelly—it usually stuck.

Connelly (1809-1879) founded the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in 1846 in England and in the process broke all the rules about what a woman in the Church was supposed to be. She was a wealthy Philadelphian who in the span of 30 years lived a life that would have made any soap-opera writer jealous. She married Pierce Connelly, an Episcopalian
minister, and moved with him to Louisiana where they had five children. She lost two of them (one to a vat of boiling maple syrup). Together Pierce and Cornelia converted to Catholicism, something she embraced as if it were a homecoming. So unshakeable was her belief that she supported her husband when he decided to enter the priesthood and even agreed to enter an English convent so he could do so. She founded the society under the arduous conditions of poverty, prejudice and politics and endured as her lapsed (and somewhat crazed) husband renounced the Catholic faith and his priesthood and sued to get her back. Though she won her case on appeal, Pierce kept the children from ever seeing her again.

Through it all, Cornelia only let herself see possibility, challenge and opportunity. She never questioned that her circumstance was something other than God’s will (perhaps the most difficult part of her story for me to fathom). Even the sisters closest to her never saw the grief she surely felt. Instead of dwelling on what may have been, Cornelia concentrated on what was. Her schools catered to the young women of the Industrial Revolution—factory workers who sought a solid education, a love of the arts and an understanding of faith. Cornelia and her sisters provided these things and made sure that their efforts “met the wants of the age,” a maxim to which young women have been rolling their eyes for over a century.

For her first students meeting
the wants of the age meant holding evening and weekend classes so the girls could still work in the factories to support their families or holding impromptu picnics so they could enjoy a warm, sunny day. For us, it meant that sex ed included lessons in contraception and that we learned how to change a tire in a pinch. In every case, it meant first determining what the age demanded, it meant questioning tradition and authority, it meant looking beyond yourself to the needs of the community while seeing how you and your needs fit into that picture. And then of course, it meant stepping up to the plate and taking a swing at answering all those wants.

And so as a 29-year-old editor in New York City, I find myself trying to live by Cornelia’s motto—trying being the key word. With my work, my neighbors, my friends, my family, I try to match my actions and words to their needs, and in doing so discover that my own needs are often met in return. Where it’s less easy is with my relationship to the Church—an institution that, in my opinion, isn’t doing such a hot job of meeting the wants of this particular age. My blood boils at how the Church views women and gays. I find it shortsighted when it comes to not allowing priests to marry and to condemning stem-cell research. There are times—especially after sitting through an out-of-touch homily—when I really want to throw in the towel.

But I don’t and I’m not always sure why. Mostly, I’m able to separate my faith from the capital-C Church. But mainly, it’s because my faith is a part of who I am, like my name or my shoe size. And because when I’m far from home or grieving, it provides the comfort of familiarity, it reminds me of where I’ve come from.

When I’m particularly irked,
I remind myself that Cornelia Connelly wouldn’t have shirked from the challenge of a wavering faith and a fallible human institution. And so I work to meet my faith halfway, crafting a practice that meets my needs and the needs of my community even if it doesn’t often follow the dictums of the Church. It would be nice to conclude this piece by telling you that I’ve struck the perfect working balance or figured out how to change things. But I can’t because the challenge is always different by the day and I’m constantly puzzling it out in the only way I know how: by trusting myself and my faith.