When I first started teaching at Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child in 1989, I knew nothing about Holy Child and had never even heard of Cornelia Connelly. This marked the beginning of a 28-year journey that has brought me to this moment — as I sit here on the brink of retirement, reflecting on how Holy Child has enriched my life.
I taught in several other Catholic private schools before coming to Oak Knoll. However, I began to sense something different — something special in my new school. Some would call it “Holy Child spirit.”
I must admit that I struggled at first to make sense of the story of Cornelia Connelly’s life. I was a little overwhelmed by all the things that happened to her and how she seemed not to be able to control events or even make her own decisions. It soon became clear to me that it is not so much the details of her life, but the way she lived it that is important. And so, I began my relationship with Cornelia Connelly, one that continues to today. As in all relationships, it builds slowly. You start by learning about the other person and seeing how this person impacts or influences your own life and the lives of others. That was certainly true of my relationship with Cornelia Connelly, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and Holy Child education.
As a member of the Theology Department and Campus Ministry team at Oak Knoll, it was part of my job to teach about Cornelia, create programs and prayer services and provide information about her to other members of the school community. I was expected to know, understand and foster the values of Holy Child education in the classroom and through Campus Ministry activities. Anyone who is a teacher knows that we are sometimes asked to teach about topics that we are not expert in. We also know that the best way to learn something is to be asked to teach others about it. I guess that’s how I came to know about Cornelia in my early years at Oak Knoll. I read, I talked and listened, and found opportunities to learn about Cornelia, her Society and educational philosophy. I learned from colleagues, from SHCJ sisters and from my students as we discussed and reflected. I learned by reading and visiting websites.
I learned about the time in which Cornelia lived. I learned that Cornelia was a person who always sought what God was asking of her. Her faith enabled her to always want to say yes to God.
I learned how strong she was and how her faith provided even more strength when she lost two children at young ages, lost her marriage, lost her familiar way of life, a life that she loved. I learned about a woman who spoke up and challenged authority, at a time when a woman did not speak her mind, or stand up to authority. I learned about a woman who was determined to establish a society of sisters whose spirit was modeled on the humble Child Jesus and where works of mercy were the motivating force. I learned about the schools she established in England where educating the whole child was her goal. I learned about her carefully designed curriculum that respected the uniqueness of each child and included art, music, dance and an overall spirit of joy, in addition to the usual academic subjects. I learned about the Society of the Holy Child Jesus as it grew from its simple start to the international presence it is today.I learned the sayings of Cornelia that are repeated in all Holy Child schools and the prayers and hymns that are part of the Holy Child history.
All of this “learning” slowly became a part of who I am as a Holy Child educator as I continued this journey.
As I took in all this information, I also began to establish connections within the network and the Society. I became involved in Mission Effectiveness being trained and participating on two visiting teams. This brought me into contact with other Holy Child educators and the chance to visit other Holy Child schools. This is when I began to experience the fact that I was part of something bigger than my own school in Summit, New Jersey.
I had the opportunity to be part of the Cornelia Connelly Curriculum Committee under the leadership of Sr. Eileen McDevitt. I joined a group of Holy Child educators from each of the Network schools. This committee was one of the greatest experiences I have had in my Holy Child journey. We met twice a year at Rosemont to share experiences, study, research and work on building a curriculum. In true Holy Child fashion, we also had lots of fun as well. Friendships were formed and continue to today.
We studied in the Archives of the American Province and participated in a walking tour of Cornelia’s Philadelphia. In the summer of 2011, our committee traveled to Oxford, England, where we spent 10 days living with the SHCJ sisters. Our work continued. We spent time in the Archives of the European Province and visited Mayfield. We spent days with Sr. Judith Lancaster as she guided us and made Cornelia even more real to us.
As a theology teacher, I have absorbed and integrated the Incarnation theology and spirituality into my life and work. The mission of the Society, “to rejoice in God’s presence and to help people believe that God lives and acts in them and in our world,” has had a deep impact on my life and work. It has been my joy to share my understanding of Cornelia, the Society and Holy Child philosophy in all aspects of my work at Oak Knoll. I’d like to think that I have helped others at Oak Knoll to know and understand Cornelia and Holy Child.
My life has forever been changed because of my experiences. I am so grateful for the many opportunities I have had. As I prepare to retire at the end of this school year, I know that I cannot, and will not, simply close the door and walk away from my relationship with Cornelia, the Society and Holy Child education. It is too much a part of who I am.