Hundreds of people have objected to plans to exhume the remains of a nun from a Grade I-listed school chapel in Sussex and move some of her bones to the US to boost her chances of being made a saint.
The Venerable Mother Cornelia Connelly founded the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, a global congregation of nuns, in 1846. The society founded Mayfield girls school, now a top Roman Catholic boarding school, a few years before Mother Cornelia died in 1879. She was declared venerable in 1992, the first step towards becoming a saint.
After an appeal to the archbishop of Philadelphia – where Mother Cornelia was born and raised – for support in the push for canonisation, some of her remains are now to be relocated from the school’s chapel to the US city’s Catholic cathedral.
The Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Vatican department that oversees the canonisation process, has given special permission for the exhumation after a request from the archbishop and the society.
But the Catholic Historic Churches and Wealden district council must also approve plans to make an opening below ground level in a wall of the 14th-century chapel to remove her remains.
More than 270 objections have been registered in Catholic Historic Churches’ consultation exercise, which closes next week. An online petition launched by a former pupil at Mayfield has been signed by more than 1,000 people.
The Cornelian Association of former pupils has described the proposal as “macabre”. The plan could damage the chapel, and 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 in a statement to the Catholic weekly, the Tablet.
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 mediaeval custom.”
Antonia Beary, the headmistress of Mayfield, contacted former pupils last week, warning of the “considerable physical disruption to the chapel building” and alerting them to the consultation deadline.
“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,” Beary said.
Assuming approval for the plans was granted, the exhumation was expected to take place in the summer, she added.
The Society of the Holy Child Jesus said: “It is a practice of the Catholic church that the body of a person being considered for sainthood should be moved to enable veneration by the faithful … It is hoped that [Cornelia’s] remains will 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.”
Mother Cornelia’s living relatives had given their support to the move, the statement said, and the exhumation would be “carried out prayerfully with dignity and respect”.
A spokesperson added: “We are saddened by any pain and upset this move causes.”
Before becoming a nun, Mother Cornelia was married and had five children. She was originally buried in the convent cemetery at Mayfield, but her remains were exhumed and moved to the chapel in 1935.
After being declared venerable, the next step to becoming a saint is beatification, which requires a miracle to be verified. A second miracle is needed for the formal declaration of sainthood.