Mother Cornelia Connelly founded The Society of the Holy Child Jesus (SHCJ) over 160 years ago - and her life, spirituality and vision continue to encourage and challenge us to this day.
Mayfield School may be unique in owing its existence to a picnic. On 26th May 1863 Mother Cornelia Connelly, who had founded the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in 1846, escorted a small group of girls from the Holy Child School at St Leonards-on-Sea to the ruins of the Old Palace of Mayfield, where they would enjoy a picnic. The peace of the countryside and the elegance of the ruins must have left their mark on Cornelia, for within a matter of weeks the estate had been purchased by the Duchess of Leeds and presented to the religious order.
Restoration of the Old Palace began in 1864 and the ruins of the 14th century hall were transformed into a church within 14 months. Although the nuns educated a small number of orphans on site almost immediately, it was not until 1872 that young girls from St Leonards were brought over to be the first pupils at the School.
Development of the School continued in order to meet the needs of the growing number of pupils at Mayfield. The Victorian red-brick school building was added in 1897, the Concert Hall by 1930, and a suite of other facilities were constructed throughout the second half of the 20th-century and beyond.
In 1953 the schools at St Leonards-on-Sea and Mayfield merged to form St Leonards-Mayfield School. Pupils remained at St Leonards up to the age of 13 and then transferred to Mayfield to continue their education to 18. In 1975 the junior school at St Leonards closed and Mayfield became the school it is today, educating girls from 11 to 18.
Until the end of the 20th century the Headmistress of St Leonards-Mayfield School was drawn from the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, at which point the School appointed its first lay Headmistress. The links with Holy Child, however, remain strong: three members of the Governing body are nuns and three nuns live in the school grounds, supporting the pastoral work of the School.
The Society of the Holy Child Jesus
The SHCJ still plays an active and vital role in the life of the school. Holy Child nuns sit on the Board of Governors, and three nuns – Sister Jean, Sister Maria and Sister Teresa Joseph – live on the school site and play important pastoral roles in both the Chaplaincy and the boarding houses.
Cornelia’s life was far from ordinary. As well as founding a congregation of sisters she was married and had five children. She became a nun because her husband wished to be a Catholic priest - and that is only part of the story. In all that happened to her she sought and found God, and clung to him and what he seemed to be asking of her. Her discerning response to her life shaped both the spirituality of the Society and the vision she had for the many schools that she established.
She developed an educational system based on trust and reverence for the dignity of every human being. She wanted Holy Child educators to carry this spirit to students of diverse backgrounds as they sought to respond to the wants of the age in which they lived. Since 1846 those educating in the tradition of Cornelia Connelly's spirituality and philosophy of education have helped students to grow strong in faith and lead fully human lives educating students towards freedom, creativity, self-discipline, individual initiative and personal and social responsibility.