Thoughts for February 2 (Anniversary of “Little Nellie”) from Fr Willie Doyle

Ellen Organ - "Little Nellie of Holy God

Kneeling there I asked her what God wanted from me, when I heard an interior voice clearly repeating, “Love Him, love Him.” The following day she seemed to rebuke me, when leaving the cemetery, for the careless way I performed most of my spiritual duties, and to say that God was displeased with this and wanted great fervour and perfection in them.

COMMENT: Today’s quote recounts Fr Doyle’s experience of visiting the grave of Ellen Organ, otherwise known as Little Nellie of Holy God. Little Nellie died on this day in 1908 in County Cork. Fr Doyle visited her grave in February 1911. We don’t know the exact date, but perhaps it was even 101 years ago on this day, her anniversary.

Little Nellie was only four and a half years old when she died. She was sent to live with the Good Shepherd sisters when her own mother died. She was diagnosed with TB and fell gravely ill. She was known even at that young age for her intense love of “Holy God”.  She had a great longing to receive the Eucharist, and received extraordinary permission to do so at the age of four and a quarter. She seems to have reached the age of reason very quickly, and experienced several mystical graces. Her thanksgivings after Communion lasted until the late afternoon, and the smell of her rotting jaws and gums allegedly ceased after she had received her First Communion. She was unafraid of death, looking forward to being united with Jesus in Heaven. She died on this day in 1908.

Her fame soon spread, and her body was found to be incorrupt when examined 18 months after death. St Pius X was greatly moved by her story, and she helped inspire him to reduce the age of First Holy Communion from 12 to 7 years of age. In fact, St Pius was so moved that he asked for a relic of Little Nellie. How remarkable and humble – the great Pontiff requesting the relic of an unknown 4 year old girl!!

Fr Doyle obviously felt a particular affinity with Little Nellie. Did he have a mystical experience when he visited the grave? Did Little Nellie really chide him for his lack of fervour and perfection? We shall never know; such matters are hard to discern, and impossible 100 years removed from the event.

Little Nellie’s story is charming and edifying. Her example helped changed Church practice on the age of First Holy Communion. The great St Pius X recognised her sanctity. Books are still published about her and significant interest in her life remains. Given the prevailing situation for too many Irish children of First Communion age – for many it is a day out when they receive lots of cash – her example is sorely needed. Of course, there is no theological problem with beatifying children. Many have already been raised to the altars and many more are on their way. One thinks immediately of Nennolina from Rome who died at six and a half in the 1930’s and whose story is similar to that of Little Nellie. She has already been declared Venerable, and an alleged miracle is apparently being investigated.

Pope Benedict tells us in his Letter to the Irish Church to remember the rock from which we have been hewn. We need contemporary Irish saints!!! This is not a pious, niche interest. Jesus Himself used everyday examples that were familiar to His listeners to illustrate His teachings. Missionaries in far away lands do the same today, utilising aspects of local culture to teach people about Christianity. Ireland is now mission territory once again, and we need to use our very own examples of holiness to reintroduce people to the Truth, Goodness and Beauty of Christianity. We have many worthy candidates, including, but not limited to, Fr Doyle and Little Nellie. Let us continue to pray for the day when we will see more Irish candidates recognised and held up as worthy models for the new evangelisation. But let us also work for this end, by writing and speaking about them and respectfully encouraging the relevant ecclesiastical authorities to open and pursue their causes.