This reflection by Ursuline Sister Nancy Liddy originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of Associate Update.
In the mid-19th century, the American-born Cornelia Connelly formed the first new indigenous women’s religious congregation on English soil since the reign of Henry VIII and the Reformation. With her experience as a wife and mother, Cornelia developed a Catholic educational philosophy for the formation of her religious Sisters and their students. Victorian era education had improved drastically, but teaching methods could be severe and allowed little room for creativity and developing talents.
Her Sisters were invited to “take the trouble to study the character of each child” and then encourage each girl to “be yourself but make that self what God wants you to be.” All emphasized the practice of praise, and discipline was mild. Outdoor learning and the performing arts, especially theater, were a part of each day – the students flourished. Although Cornelia’s vision is more common today, it was daringly progressive for her time. Now mostly lay run, the Holy Childhood network of schools continues to operate under the guidance of the Sisters of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus.
The political historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was surprised to discover in her research on Lincoln how much of his affability and good nature had been overlooked in history books. Lincoln rarely criticized and often complimented even his rivals. Read between the lines of the available material on the life of Cornelia and this lesser-known aspect of her personality emerges as well. Lincoln lifted the spirits of his colleagues during the Civil War. And Cornelia, through her appreciation of each person, was able to mediate through factions and sustain the spirits of her newly formed community. As grieving parents (Lincoln and Cornelia both lost young sons) they carried on – despite their losses – offering praise and appreciation for those around them.
I remember hearing stories about our Sisters who would blush with embarrassment when receiving a compliment. I was very surprised to discover over half of British people polled feel uncomfortable when they are complimented. The experts tell us children shouldn’t be overpraised and we need to be especially prudent with our compliments in the workplace. Do we really need compliments? The best support from the Scriptures comes from the Creation story: God looked at everything and found it very good. Maybe we don’t have to gush too much for those who don’t like to draw attention to themselves, but we want to avoid the other extreme of withholding well-deserved praise – it’s a matter of justice.
My niece and two nephews all graduated from Cornelia Connelly schools. Their parents are very natural in praising them. The kids are not shy about stating what doesn’t appeal to them, but I have never heard them say a harsh thing about anyone. As we seek new ways to encourage one another to carry on the reign of God, we can begin with a simple compliment. The compliments do not have to be lavish because we all try to go about our work selflessly without the expectation of praise. Cornelia Connelly was a great lover of theater. I think she would say it is a grace to give and receive compliments and to applaud what deserves applauding.
Something to Consider
The practice of offering praise helps us notice and appreciate the goodness that surrounds us. Do you offer sincere compliments to others? Do you have a tendency to brush off compliments?
(The artwork above is “An Audience of One” by Norman Rockwell, 1938.)