Society of the Holy Child Jesus celebrates 150 Years in America
In 1862 an American woman, the granddaughter of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was living in England. She was Louisa Catherine, Duchess of Leeds. She became acquainted with Mother Cornelia Connolly, who was the foundress of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in England. Mother Connolly was also an American, being Cornelia Augusta Peacock, a member of a prominent family in Philadelphia. After many years of hard work in England the society had secured a firm footing there.
Pope Gregory XVI was always urging Mother Connolly to let her efforts in the cause of education reach America. The Duchess of Leeds owned in Towanda all of the land from Third Street back to the Borough line. Christopher L. Ward (the first president of the Bradford County Historical Society in 1870) was her land agent. Knowing of Mother Connolly’s desire to come to America, he offered some of this land for the foundation of a convent and school. Anxious to establish her work and the work of her order in America, Mother Connolly accepted the offer.
On Monday, Aug. 18, 1862, Mother Mary Xavier Noble and Mother Lucy Ignatia Nwesham, Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, arrived in Towanda with Father Charles Carter from Philadelphia, to take possession of a house that Louisa Catherine, Duchess of Leeds, had given to the sisters to establish a convent and a school. This house stood at 416 State Street until it was demolished on Dec. 29, 2004. It was for many years the home of Kenneth and Adelaide Packard Young, some of us remember “Buff” Young’s store, which stood beside the house on State Street. What the sisters found upon inspecting the property where they were to live was a small wooden building, falling into decay. The paper was hanging in festoons from the walls, the paint covered with dirt, or else not existing at all.
It is needless to say that the sisters did not feel encouraged at the prospect before them, but they determined to settle in Towanda as it belonged to the Society. Mother Xavier Noble wrote to the other four sisters who were still in Philadelphia, giving them instructions as to their arrival in Towanda. One line of her letter stated “Pray, pray, pray, very much — the work is difficult and we are only beginning.”
On Monday, Aug. 25, 1862, the other sisters left Philadelphia by train arriving at 10 p.m. in Troy, Pa. A buggy was waiting to take them to Burlington where they stayed overnight, leaving at dawn for Towanda, where they arrived at 8 a.m. They were taken to Mr. Ward’s house, where they washed and were ready to meet the other sisters when they came from church.
Mr. Ward went with them up to the convent. Well, such a place! But they had come to America not to enjoy themselves, but to work, and there was plenty to do in a material way before they could do anything in the form of a school.
The parish school opened the second week of September. Mr. Ward gave the sisters a large room for the purpose, but there was no furniture in it — not even a chair. So after sweeping and cleaning, the children were dismissed until some kind of furniture could be procured. Mother Mary Xavier had a kind of frame gallery erected, and on this the children could sit for general lessons. Now, these children were boys from the ages of 5 to 15, and girls from 5 to 18, and numbered about 80 in all.
October 11 was set for the opening of the academy. Mother Agatha wrote of these days:
“The school was opened, but not a child appeared. The next day, the same result — in fact the whole week passed and they heard of none.”
Sunday came and all received Holy Communion, asking Our Lord very earnestly to send children. Mother Lucy Ignatia and Mother Agatha went out to the people of Bradford County, crossing the Susquehanna on a raft and driving over the narrows in a buggy to call upon the people, asking them to send their children to the academy. For three days the sisters went from house to house in Towanda and the vicinity, and by the end of the week there were about 10 children — only two came the first day, and when they found what the sisters were like, and that they did not interfere with their religion, they told their companions and friends. Before Christmas there were 25 children, five of whom were boarders: two Protestants and three Catholics. The following are the names of the boarders and as they are the first in America, they ought to be recorded: Mary Kelly, Julia Foyle, Nancy Ann McDonough, Fannie D’Estelle and Frank Peck — the latter were cousins and Protestants.
Maria Parsons Decker wrote a few words about her memory of the nuns:
“My first remembrance or knowledge of convent life or a sisterhood was presented to my youthful mind when the Sisters of the Holy Child came from the Motherhouse in England and opened their school in Towanda, my native town.
“The arrival of the sisters created ardent and appealing curiosity, owing to their somber and unusual attire, which had never been seen in this vicinity before.
“I think in the beginning there were about 15 girls, of whom I was one, and we were formed into classes. They were all nice girls from excellent families eager to grasp the advanced and cultured learning introduced by these gifted sisters from England. Their method of teaching, I think, superior to and more impressive than ours.”
Unfortunately for the citizens for Towanda and vicinity, Bishop James Wood of the Diocese of Philadelphia (Towanda was a part of the Diocese of Philadelphia until the Diocese of Scranton was created in 1868) visited Towanda and the Sisters many times during the years 1862-1864. From the beginning he was dissatisfied with the accommodations secured by Mr. Ward for the Sisters and he began making plans to remove the Society from Towanda and move them to a place where they could be more productive and comfortable. In June of 1864 the sisters received word to abandon the convent at Towanda and move to Sharon, Pa. The day for commencement in Towanda was set for June 26, and after that it was over. The people who knew the sisters and the children whom they taught were much grieved. The loyalty of these children was of lasting quality.
Three local young ladies became Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus. Caroline Thall, daughter of James and Coroline Lafever Thall of Dushore, was the first American received as a postulant for the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. In religious life she was known as Sister Joseph. Johanna Lynch of Standing Stone Township, the daughter of Patrick and Bridget Mangner Lynch, was received into the Society in 1872. In religious life she was known as Sister Hilda and spent a good deal of her life in Cheyenne, Wyo. Helen (Nellie) Dunn of Towanda grew up just across the street from SS. Peter and Paul’s Church. She entered the novitiate at Sharon, Pa. when she was 17 and spent the next 55 years as a Sister of the Holy Child Jesus.
The Society of the Holy Child Jesus is celebrating their sesquicentennial this year. They have made two trips to Towanda under the guidance of Sister Jeanne Adams, a member of the Society who lived in Towanda for several years doing research on the order during their time in Bradford County.
Henry Farley, president of the Bradford County Historical Society will join the Sisters at their major anniversary celebration in Philadelphia in October. Farley will be speaking to the sisters about Towanda in 1862.