In my soon-to-be-published book on Catholic saints, I have a chapter on the theme of childhood. The chapter looks at the childhood of saints (whose childhoods were sometimes saintly, and sometimes far from saintly). One child I don't discuss in that chapter is Nellie Organ, or "Nellie Organ of Holy God". I made the decision to only write about people who have actually been given the title "Blessed" or "Saint" by the Church. Nellie Organ has not even been declared Venerable yet. Indeed, a cause for her sainthood has yet to be opened.
And yet, I personally feel no doubt whatsoever that this child was a saint.
Her name was Ellen Organ, and she died of tuberculosis at four years of age, in 1908. Despite her age, she was given special permission to receive the Blessed Eucharist, and it is said that her story influenced St. Pius X to reduce the age at which children can receive Communion. (In fact, the encyclical in which he does this, Quam Singulari, argues that children should be allowed to receive Communion as soon as they can understand the difference between the Eucharist and ordinary bread and wine, and further insists that this is no innovation but the ancient practice of the church).
Nellie Organ was the child of a family which was devout, but not prosperous. Her father, for want of other work, became a soldier in the British army. Her mother died, also of tuberculosis, a year before Nellie. The father soon discovered he could not care for his four young children alone, and each of them was placed in the care of religious orders.
The child spent the last eight months of her life in the care of the Good Shepherd Sisters of Cork. It was soon discovered she had tuberculosis, and that she was not long for the world. As well as this, she had a disease calls caries, which caused her jaw to disintegrate and produced a foul smell.
Nellie became famous amongst the Good Shepherd sisters for her devotion to the Eucharist (which she simply called "Holy God"), and for her extraordinary fortitude and sweetness. But this is not all; there are accounts of extraordinary favours received, such as answers to prayers and miraculous discernment. Such stories abound in the lives of the saints. Could Ellen Organ, a four-year-old victim of tuberculosis, really be a saint?
Here, the modern reader (myself included) will find himself hesitating. Can we really believe the stories which have been handed down? Was it, perhaps, the spiritual excitement of the Good Shepherd Sisters bubbling over? Is there something rather grotesque in venerating a four-year-old tuberculosis victim as a holy person? Many modern commentators on the case of Nellie Organ, as we will see, believe that there is.
Catholics believe in extraordinary grace. There is no reason to doubt that a four-year-old child can receive extraordinary graces. And yet, in spite of this, the cult of Nellie Organ remains somewhat disconcerting. What if we are wrong, and simply exploiting a tragic story for our own devotional purposes?
I have felt this discomfort, and yet I find the story of Little Nellie extraordinary compelling. Partly this is because it is so hard to interpret in any way except a supernatural one. Partly it's because it awakens in me a greater awe for the Blessed Eucharist. Partly it's because of the familiarity and confidence of her relationship with God (another common motif in saint's lives). And partly it's because it gives me a greater (if all-too-fleeting) sense of urgency in my spiritual life. Little Nellie was hardly alive before she was dying, and yet she lived a life renowned for its holiness. What's stopping us?
The most famous aspect of her life is her hunger for the Blessed Sacrament, and the dispensation she was given to receive it long before the usual age (at that time) of twelve years old.
Bishop Thomas Alphonsus O' Callaghan
Special permission for Nellie to receive Communion was given by Bishop Thomas Alphonsus O'Callaghan, Bishop of Cork at the time (and one time the personal confessor of Pope Piux IX). The case was reported to him by a Fr. Bury S.J., who was conducting a retreat for the Good Shepherd Sisters and who was told of Little Nellie's hunger for "Holy God". Interviewing her, he asked her what the Blessed Eucharist was. "It is Holy God", said Nellie. "It is Him that makes the nuns and everyone else holy."
This is how the same Fr. Bury describes Nellie's eventual reception of the Eucharist: "Little Nellie literally hungered for her God, and received Him from my hands in a transport of love." Another priest who was present attests: "All remarked the heavenly light that lighted up the child's countenance."
This, in itself, might be dismissed as the touching story of a precocious child's religious experience, and of the impression it made on sympathetic onlookers. However, there is another detail: from the day she received Holy Communion, the foul smell that had accompanied the disintegration of the poor girl's jaw disappeared.
Other remarkable stories have been handed down. My favourite is that in which little Nellie seemed to know, supernaturally, that a girl named Mary Long, who helped the sisters, and who usually attended morning Mass, had not received Holy Communion that day. The first time this happened, Mary Long assumed that Nellie had heard her moving around the nearby kitchen. The next time it happened, Mary had feigned she was leaving for church, and took her boots off while working in the kitchen instead. She was greeted with the same declaration as the first time: "You did not get Holy God."
There are also accounts of special favours received in prayer. When she was told to pray for a particular Jesuit, who had intended to come to Cork but was very ill, she correctly predicted: "He will get better, but he will never see me".
Along with all this, Nellie Organ astonished those around her by her lack of complaint in the face of her agonizing suffering.
The little girl died in the early hours of Candlemas. In her last moments she seemed to reaching towards something, and attempting to speak.
Her body was exhumed a year after her death, in order to transfer her to another cemetery. A Fr. Scannell, present at the exhumation, reported: "Everything...was found to be exactly as on the day of Nellie's death."
Bishop Thomas Alphonsus O'Callaghan, the bishop who gave permission for Nellie to receive Communion, took a specal interest in her case and promoted her cause. However, it seems to have frittered out after his death. There are very few child saints in Church history who are not martyrs; in recent centuries, there was debate amongst theologians on whether a child could posses the "heroic virtue" required for sainthood. Last year's canonizations of two of the Fatima visionaries makes it seem likely that we will have more non-martyr child saints. In this National Catholic Register article, Nellie Organ is mentioned as one of the likely candidates.
The convent in which Nellie Organ lived her last months burned down in 2003. Her room had been preserved to her memory until then. The site of her grave is currently in the control of a bank. Planning permission for it to be redeveloped was given in 2006, but this never happened. Her grave seems to be inaccessible to the public, although the local bishop is trying to address this. (I've written to the diocese to ask how the situation stands, but there has been no reply as yet.)
How extensive is the cult of Nellie Organ in modern Ireland? From my personal experience, I can't claim that it's particularly extensive. I'd never heard of her until perhaps two years ago, long after I started writing this blog.
My father never heard about her, and he's a life-long Irish Catholic. I asked various of my colleagues if they had ever heard of her, and received a universal "No".
Nonetheless, she has certainly achieved lasting renown. There are seven books about her, in whole or in part, listed on her Wikipedia entry. My interest in her grew through a series of articles in The Open Door magazine (a local Catholic magazine to which I contribute articles on Chesterton), taken from a book by Leo Madigan.
Nellie is not absent from the consciousness of modern Irish journalists, though their attitude towards her cult is generally negative. The journalist Victoria White, who has sometimes been a critic of media Church-bashing, is quite emphatic in her distaste: "Every time I see a picture of Little Nellie Organ I want to get sick.
The horror of it. The dying four-year-old trussed up in a chair in the
bridal gown of a First Communicant. The pasty face and the huge staring
eyes. It is a repulsive image." The main target of her article is Ireland's record of public health, but she suggests that the cult of pious suffering delayed its improvement. (Were other countries any better?)
She is also sceptical of the miraculous stories surrounding Nellie: "When the nuns were in distress over a sick woman Nellie
apparently asked if she had children. Told that she was a mother many
times over, Nellie said, “I will pray to Holy God and He will see that
she’ll be cured.” The woman was cured, or else we would not have heard
the story, and no doubt this is among the “miracles” being trumped up in
an effort to have Little Nellie venerated."
Donal O'Keeffe in an article in the uber-liberal online newspaper The Journal is just as caustic:
"As someone who does not have religion, I think this whole story is both tasteless and disturbing. All I can see is a highly intelligent little girl who had a short, painful life and who has been exploited in death by the Catholic Church. I would also question what we mean when we talk of “rest in peace” if the Bishop proposes a third burial for Little Nellie.
"Most offensive of all, though, is a fact which appears to have escaped for a while the notice of both the Bishop and the local residents of Sunday’s Well: Ellen Organ is not alone in the grounds of the Good Shepherd Convent. There is also a mass grave on that site. The Good Shepherds ran a Magdalene Laundry, you see."
Ireland's Magdalene Laundries were laundries run by religious sisters in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in which women who required asylum for various reasons worked. Lurid stories have circulated about these institutions, and the sensationalist movie The Magdalene Sisters (2003) gave these full credence. Subsequent investigation has suggested they were not the hell-holes they were purported to be, even if they were far from pleasant, but this has made little impression on the public memory.
More recently, human remains were found in a Mother and Baby home which was run by Bon Secours Sister in Galway, and which closed in 1961. Further lurid stories suggested that hundreds of babies had been found in a "septic tank", even though this was not the case. The author John Waters tried to bring sanity to the debate, and was roundly condemned for it.
The cult of Nellie Organ, then, has become a battlefield in Ireland's rather one-sided culture wars. Let us hope that this rather petulant moment in Irish social history passes, and that this holy little girl is soon invoked only to honour her memory. Let us pray, as well, that she is raised to the altars as Ireland's youngest saint, an inspiration to old and young alike.
(Many of the biographical facts in this blog post have been taken from the article about Nellie on Glen Dallaire's excellent website Mystics of the Church.)