Wednesday 22 November 2017

Could sainthood beckon for Cork's Little Nellie?

Little Nellie of Holy God was just four years old when she died in obscurity in 1908, but her many devotees believe she had ­miraculous powers. Now there's a bid to make her sainthood ­official

Little Nellie
Little Nellie
Inspired: Pope Pius X said Little Nellie was the sign he'd been waiting for to lower the age of Communion
The grave of Little Nellie of Holy God at Sunday's Well in Co Cork

Damian Corless

This week there was a full house at Cork's Girl's Club Centre for what was billed as a 'Little Nellie of Holy God Evening'. Those attending were urged to bring along "stories of miracles" which might be used "to make Little Nellie a saint".

Many won't have heard of Little Nellie, who died aged just four 109 years ago, but to her devotees, she is "the unofficial patron saint of Cork". She has inspired a dozen books spanning a century, and if you go to YouTube, you'll find two musical tributes, one a highly polished ballad in the schmaltzy style of R Kelly, the other a rough and ready Country'n'Irish waltz.

While Ellen 'Nellie' Organ's afterlife has been a feel-good story, her brief existence was filled with pain, suffering and tragedy.

She was born in 1903 in a Waterford military barracks, before her soldier father's job would take the family to Spike Island in Cork Harbour. One day, with her mother suffering the early symptoms of tuberculosis, Ellen was entrusted to a babysitter who dropped her. The infant's hip and back were twisted out of joint. As she grew, and she developed curvature of the spine, her pain intensified. She had difficulty walking and was unable to sit up straight.

Little Nellie
Little Nellie

Her mother finally succumbed to the scourge of TB when Nellie was just three. Unable to cope, the father handed his four young children into the care of the nuns in Cork. Examined at a Sisters of Mercy hospital, she was found to be suffering from the savage affliction of whooping cough. She spent most of her time in the infirmary, where the nuns and nurses quickly came to believe that they were in the presence of a spiritual savant.

Gift of 'discernment'

She is known as Little Nellie of Holy God because she always referred to the deity as "Holy God" and to the chapel as "the house of Holy God". She was deeply fascinated by the religious icons in the chapel, especially the Stations of the Cross. Her carers believed that the tiny girl had the mystical gift of 'discernment', which meant that she instinctively knew what the will of God was directing her to do in any given situation. This 'gift of discernment' is one reason her followers today believe she qualifies for sainthood.

When she died in 1908, her grave at St Joseph's Cemetery quickly became a place of pilgrimage. In many cases, those at the graveside prayed directly to the little girl for blessings, cures and miracles. They would leave votive items like crutches by the graveside.

A year after her death, her remains were exhumed for reburial in the Good Shepherd Convent Cemetery in Sunday's Well. It is claimed that when the coffin was reopened, she looked exactly like she had at the moment of her death, with not a hint of decay.

A victim of the economic crash, the Good Shepherd Convent, and Little Nellie's resting place, passed into the hands of receivers, cutting off access to a growing stream of pilgrims. Two years ago, the Bishop of Cork & Ross called for a second exhumation of Little Nellie so she could once again be made accessible to her devotees.

The grave of Little Nellie of Holy God at Sunday's Well in Co Cork
The grave of Little Nellie of Holy God at Sunday's Well in Co Cork

However, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd said this week that good progress has been made with the new owners of the site, and they hope the access issue will be soon resolved.

"A few years back, lots of people were ringing into the Bishop's office about Little Nellie, so the Bishop asked me to set up a study group," says Fr Patrick McCarthy, parish priest of the Church of Saints Peter & Paul in Cork. "Our report is almost complete."

He takes care to stress: "Our mandate was not promotion, but to gauge levels of devotion. And there is growing devotion to Little Nellie, from Cork to Canada. What's remarkable is that the child died aged just four-and-a-half in obscurity, but 109 years later she is widely venerated."

The investigators identified places at home and abroad where there appeared to be a special interest in Nellie. They put notes on parish noticeboards inviting people to share their beliefs and experiences.

"People did tell us they were asking for miracles," Fr McCarthy confirms.

So what's so special about this mere child that inspires such veneration?

"She was said to have a remarkable understanding of the Holy Eucharist, or 'the real presence', as we call it," he says. "She grasped how Christ is really or substantially present in the Eucharist, and not just symbolically. She could apparently sense 'the real presence'. One story is that a nurse claimed to have received Holy Communion, but Nellie flatly told her that she had not received it that day."

Word reached the Bishop of Cork about this little girl's intense spirituality, and he sought and got a special dispensation so the dying Nellie could make her First Communion aged four, and not the usual (for the time) age of 12.

Pope Pius X became a fan. He'd already given long thought to lowering the age of First Communion from 12. "The Pope said that Little Nellie was the sign he'd been waiting for to go ahead and lower the age," Fr McCarthy says. It dropped from 12 to seven.

Relics of the little girl, in the form of personal items, were requested by the Pope and the Queen of Spain.

Fatima siblings

For over a century, the Vatican has resisted calls to elevate Little Nellie to sainthood. This has had nothing to do with doubts about her precocious piety, but because the Church has traditionally only canonised children who died as martyrs. However, that situation changed earlier this year when huge crowds thronged Fatima in Portugal for the canonisation of brother and sister Francisco and Jacinta Marto, who the faithful believe encountered the Virgin Mary in 1917. "Up until this year, the practice was that child saints always had to be martyrs, but Francisco and Jacinta were not, so their canonisation raises the possibility - and it's only a possibility - for Little Nellie to follow suit," Fr McCarty explains.

The Fatima siblings died young, aged nine and 10, so at just four years old, Nellie would be one of the youngest saints in Church history, but not the youngest. The Holy Martyrs - the male under-twos slaughtered in the Bible by King Herod in search of Jesus - have been accorded the status of saints.

The current devotion to Little Nellie - the praying to an individual for cures and miracles - seems very much like old-time religion from Ireland's past. Is there a lot more of it going on than mainstream society sees? Is it still a strong presence, but only underground?

"I think there's no doubt it's not all one-way traffic," Fr McCarthy replies. "In our church, there's shrines to Our Lady, Padre Pio, etc. If you sit at the back of the church on, say, a weekday, you'll see men and women of all ages, sitting in prayer or contemplation, and often lighting a candle. Maybe it's to ask for something, maybe an act of thanksgiving. What's interesting is how many are men of all ages. They may not even go to Mass.

"At the heart of it, I think, is that at some point, or with some event, we all come to a realisation of the fragility of life."

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