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Dublin: 7°C Saturday 22 January 2022

The story of the Cork 4-year-old who is the reason First Communion age is now 7

“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”, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

Donal O'Keeffe

IF YOU’VE NEVER heard of Little Nellie of Holy God, “the unofficial patron saint of Cork”, don’t feel too bad. I’ve lived in Cork most of my life and last week was the first time I heard of her.

“Little Nellie of Holy God” was a four and a half year old girl who died in 1908. Her short life was marked by appalling suffering and an uncanny knowledge of Catholic doctrine. After her death, she became a celebrity of sorts and, for a time, her grave became a place of pilgrimage. Also – believe it or not – she is the reason that Catholic children receive First Communion at 7.

Little Nellie was in the news last week because the Bishop of Cork and Ross, John Buckley, wants her exhumed from her present grave on the now derelict Good Shepherd Convent site in Sunday’s Well. He told RTÉ News that he wants her remains moved “to a more public place” so devotees can more easily venerate her. (The Church flogged the Good Shepherd site more than a decade ago and it is now sealed following a spate of anti-social behaviour.) However, some locals say they don’t want Little Nellie’s remains moved and they’d rather gain access to the site and pray over her grave there.

Suffering and pain

Ellen Organ was born in Waterford in 1903, the youngest of four children. Her father, William, served in the British Army. When Nellie was a baby, she was dropped by a babysitter and suffered serious spinal injuries which left her in constant pain.

When Nellie was two, she moved with her family to Spike Island in Cork Harbour, where her mother, Mary, became fatally ill with consumption (tuberculosis). In her illness, Mary became fervently religious. It’s not hard to imagine a dying woman filling her daughter’s head with tales of “Holy God”.

When Mary died, William was unable to cope and put his children in care. At four, Nellie ended up in the infirmary of the Good Shepherd Convent. She was suffering from whooping cough and dental caries, tooth decay so bad that her jaw disintegrated. Worse, she had contracted TB and had less than six months to live. The nuns were astonished at Nellie’s religiosity and successfully petitioned the then-Bishop to grant her Holy Communion, then reserved for children over 12.

When Nellie died, stories of her holiness spread as far as Rome. Pope Pius X declared Nellie a sign from God and decreed the age of Communion be reduced to 7. A year after her death, the Good Shepherd nuns had her body exhumed from St Joseph’s cemetery to be re-buried on their property. They claimed that when they opened her coffin, her body was perfectly preserved and all signs of decay had disappeared.

Little girl exploited by the Catholic Church 

For years after, pilgrims visited Little Nellie’s new grave and the room in which she died. I suspect Bishop Buckley would like such pilgrimages to resume. Pilgrimages have always been big business – witness the recent transatlantic pilgrimage to Knock. Six million people a year visit Lourdes. With Fáilte Ireland saying each overseas visitor drops €82 a day here, imagine what Little Nellie might do for the Real Capital.

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.

Twenty minutes on Google and you could fill a book with the stories you’ll read about Little Nellie (four and a half years old). She was a genuine marketing phenomenon. We know little about the other girls and women buried up there, not even how many of them there are (possibly 30 but some of the women are also listed as buried in St Joseph’s).

A look at magdalenelaundries.com shows the 1911 census of the Magdalene inmates, Little Nellie’s near-contemporaries. It’s quite distressing to read the list of girls and women known only by their initials. They didn’t even merit names.

‘The Good Shepherd site should be declared a crime scene’

Last weekend, Bishop Buckley responded to disquiet expressed by Magdalene survivors and by Justice For Magdalene Research that he had made no reference to the mass grave or to the lives of drudgery and shame suffered by the women who died in the service of the Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry.

“I would support calls to make the other graves there accessible to those who wished to visit and pray there and would also support calls that the graves would be maintained appropriately and reverentially,” he told the Irish Examiner. “Respect for the dead, their place of burial, and religious sites are fundamental to a civilised society and are fundamental aspects to our Christian belief.”

I’m not quite sure how that respect is reflected in the notion of exhuming Little Nellie all over again, but I personally think she should be exhumed. I think all of the bodies up there should be exhumed. I also think the Good Shepherd site should be declared a crime scene.

In the meantime, maybe the Catholic Church might better honour Little Nellie of Holy God by paying restitution to those who survived their time in Catholic institutions.
And maybe those inclined to say a prayer for Little Nellie – a poor little kid who had a horrible life – might say a prayer too for all of the other girls and all of the women who died unloved and un-mourned in the “care” of the servants of Holy God.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here

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