Maria and the Bellasis Family 13
It was some months since Mother Francis and I had had Sunday sessions, but she invited me for one this weekend. She said she wanted me to hear the story of Mother Connolly’s last days.
She was pleased to see me when I arrived in her office and started right in.
“Mother Connolly was often in poor health, and it was suggested that she might do better during the harsh winters if she went to the South of France, where my parents had a house in Hyeres. Earlier my father, Sargeant Bellasis, had encouraged Cornelia to think of starting a school for the English colony at Hyeres in Provence where the climate would do her good. Three religious including me and eight children accompanied her. The journey was broken in Paris, and the following day the other two sisters left for Toul, a small town in Lorraine, to visit a school which had been offered to them. Mother Connelly with me and the children went on to Hyeres, where we arrived after a journey of a day and night.”
“All that travelling must have been hard for her,” I put in.
“When we drove through Hyeres the carriage stopped. ’This is not the right place,' said Mother Connelly. ‘Yes, madame,’ said the coachman, ‘this is Villa Semainville.’ The door opened and the lady-proprietor, who was expecting us, came forward. ‘But this is not the house I have taken,’ repeated Mother Connelly. ‘I chose a small cottage standing in its own garden.’ ‘Excuse me, madame, I have your letter to show that you have engaged to rent this house for three months.’
“The letter was produced and proved the truth of her words. Through a mistake made by Mother Connelly or her secretary in confusing the two names the party was condemned to inhabit a large fashionable house, without a garden — and at double the price of the quiet little suburban cottage she had intended to hire. This trying moment showed once more Mother Connelly's characteristic self-control. The price was a very serious consideration at that time, and the loss of the garden as great a privation. She turned to me and remarked quietly, ‘We have done something foolish.’ Then without loss of composure or useless argument, she entered the house, her face expressing her usual serenity and peace. God had allowed this to happen, and He would provide. There was no chapel, but we did have Mass said at the house on special occasions.
“For a few days the children were left free to become acquainted with their new surroundings. But when the other nuns arrived from Toul regular lessons began, and several French pupils came to join the English girls. Mother Connelly enjoyed the beautiful scenery. The Feast of St. Stanislaus and other Feast Days were celebrated by pilgrimages to various country shrines.”
Mother Francis brought out another letter.
“On December 13th she wrote to one of the Sisters in England :
Our church is a picture of beauty, and I hear the same of Mayfield. Even more beautiful than ever. The cribs also are fascinating in the beauty of the perspective. Mother Mary Francis has even contrived a lake and a waterfall like the one at Mayfield ! Of course it will be the wonder of the year to all the poor, who never saw anything of the sort before.
“On occasions Mother Connelly would sketch the lovely views, while the children gathered round and watched her. There is no doubt, however, that the separation from her community was a great trial to her.
“We tried to get a school opened there, but it proved impracticable, and the party returned to St. Leonards in the spring.”
“She must have been pleased to return. But perhaps the time improved her health somewhat,” I said.
“All through the month of March Mother Connelly was confined to her bed, and her strength was failing. She was now suffering from virulent eczema, besides her other ailments.
“Her bodily suffering was great, but her mind remained clear, as ever, and her soul dwelt in peace beneath the Hand of God, as, with the shadows deepening around, her brave spirit prepared for the last great venture of death.
“When repeating her favourite motto, ‘Dieu seul’ her face became radiant with ecstatic love. She had not lost her beautiful voice, and after Holy Communion, when she was left alone, we used to hear her singing.
“Her physical sufferings were now extreme, but her strong, bright spirit seemed to be renewed, and to be able to rise above them all. To the end she kept the cheerfulness, even at times the gaiety which had always formed such an attractive feature of her sanctity. All anxiety seemed to have left her. When a sister expressed her hope that Our Lord would spare her to complete her work, she replied, ‘No, I have begun it, but others will bring it to its perfection.’
“On the 14th of April she was anointed, for the second time, in her long illness. In the evening she was thought to be unconscious, and the Reverend Father Hogan said the last prayers over her. As soon as they were ended, to the astonishment of all, she opened her eyes, and turning them towards the Father, said : ‘Thank you. Father, for all you have done for me. I hope I shall be able to make you a return later.’
“For several days she had seldom spoken, and at times it was difficult to know whether she was conscious or not. The eczema had now spread over her whole body, not sparing even her face, and giving her the appearance of one scalded from head to foot.
“The day before she died a sister was trying to ease the irritation caused by the disease, when Mother Connelly struck one hand with the other three times, repeating each time with intense conviction, ‘In this flesh I shall see my God.’ This was on Thursday in Easter week. At midnight the last change took place. At six in the morning all the sisters were summoned to her cell to pray. Father Hogan was sent for, and remained until the hour of Mass, giving her the absolution and saying the last prayers. But she appeared to have become unconscious.
“All the morning of this last day those sisters who could be freed from duties in the school were either praying in the church or on their knees outside her room. A few were able to be beside the bed. The silence was broken only by her laboured breathing and by the prayers which from time to time were said aloud.
“At last the bell for Office rang, and the sisters went to recite Vespers and Compline. Those who remained saw then that the end was very near. The priest pronounced the solemn words, ‘Go forth. Christian Soul,’ whilst someone held the crucifix to her lips and another sprinkled holy water around.
“And now a wonderful thing happened. All the pure spiritual beauty of her face that God had given to her, and had taken away that she might the more resemble Christ, was given back at this last hour. The disfigurement caused by the disease passed away, and her countenance shone like a vision of peace in the great dawn of death. That, my dear, was one of the miracles that I witnessed.”
“ That must have been very wonderful to see. What were the others?”
“In May 1858 - The miracles of the year! .. A school girl had fallen from a third story window unharmed; a child had been cured of some ailment on Easter Sunday.
“Sister Walburga had recovered from cancer after the application of St Walburga's oil.
“1861: The winter was unusually severe and the nuns at St Leonards were too poor to buy coal. On the second day of the Novena to St Anthony a supply of coal arrived.
“Angelica Croft. Cornelia's own choice of successor. became deathly ill at Mayfield, received the last sacraments and was despaired of by the doctor. Cornelia prayed
with great urgency for her recovery and she was speedily restored to health.“
I asked Sister Francis to satisfy my curiosity and tell me what had happened to the children after her death.
“Her oldest son Mercer went to Texas to stay with his uncle and he contracted yellow fever and died there. That was years before her death.
“Frank and Adeline continued to live with their father and neither has married. Their attitude was one of loyal and indignant defence of him whom they had been taught to consider the injured one.”
“It is such a shame she didln’t know her children as adults,” I said.
“Adeline always kept up the friendship formed in her early childhood with another nun, Mother Teresa, and when she was grown up she came, with her father's consent, to see her and stay for a short time with her mother in the convent at St. Leonards. She was then and later very like her mother, with the same dark expressive eyes. She had also inherited a beautiful voice.
“Adeline's sentiments, though somewhat softened, were in complete sympathy with her father, and this necessarily involved a disapproval of her mother's course of action. She was naturally warm-hearted and affectionate, and was devotedly attached to her brother Frank.
“Mr. Connelly appeared to have enjoyed the affection which his two remaining children lavished upon him, without troubling himself overmuch about their welfare or prospects. Relations in America found Adeline's education defective, and blamed her father severely.
“Frank's great gifts as a sculptor were trained in Italy, where he attained considerable eminence. He came to see his mother in 1867. In this meeting kindly sympathies seem to have been aroused, but the interviews were short, lasting only a few hours and ended with him in a foul temper.”
“Thank you for telling me all this. I will keep them all in my prayers,” I said.
We’d gone well over our hour slot, but I was now satisfied that I knew all I needed to know about Mother Connolly and her family.