The Eucharist - Jesus living in us and we in Jesus - Little Nellie of Holy God

Homily for the Twentieth Sunday Year B

by Fr. Tommy Lane

You may remember a few weeks ago (2003) that the disused Good Shepherd Convent in Sunday’s Well, Cork was destroyed by fire. That convent and the adjoining cemetery in the convent grounds are known by many throughout the world because of a little four year old girl called Little Nellie of Holy God. Her real name is Nellie Organ and she was born in the family quarters of the Royal Garrison Barracks in Waterford in August 1903 since her father was working in the British army. That was just three weeks after Pius X became Pope. There were four children in the family. Nellie’s father, William, with his family, were transferred to the barracks on Spike Island in Cork Harbor and Nellie’s mother died there. William decided that he could not care for the children and the two girls were given to the care of the Good Shepherd Sisters at St. Finbarr’s Industrial School in Sunday’s Well, Cork and the two boys were sent to another location. Nellie spent only one year in Sunday’s Well before she died due to illness. She had whooping cough when she arrived and it was also discovered that she had a spinal injury which was later discovered to have been caused when the family’s child-minder dropped her as a baby. She also had tuberculosis and caries, a rotting disease of the gums and jaws.

Little NellieNellie is famous for her outstanding love of Jesus in the Eucharist. A Jesuit, Fr Bury was giving a retreat in the convent and visited Nellie’s bedside each day. He realized that Nellie, although only four years of age, had reached the age of reason. Fr Bury asked her, “What is Holy Communion?” She answered, “It is Holy God.” Fr Bury asked her what would happen when she would be allowed to receive Holy Communion. She answered, “Jesus will rest on my tongue and then he will do down into my heart.” One could scarcely find a more beautiful description for receiving Jesus in Holy Communion. One night when the Mother Superior was wishing Nellie good night, Nellie asked her if she would bring Holy God up to her in the morning. Mother Francis said she would come to see her after Mass which Nellie misunderstood as meaning that she would bring her Holy Communion. When Mother Francis came without Holy Communion Nellie was devastated. Then Nellie asked people to come to her bedside for a moment after receiving Jesus in Holy Communion and then they could return to the chapel to finish their thanksgiving. That was the closest she could get to receiving Jesus in Holy Communion. During the retreat Fr Bury realized that Nellie, although only four years and three months, met all the criteria necessary to receive Holy Communion. And at that time children had to wait until the age of twelve to receive Jesus in Holy Communion. Fr Bury heard her confession and contacted the bishop of Cork for permission to give her Holy Communion. The bishop agreed. She was dressed in white and taken down to the convent chapel for her first Holy Communion. This is what Mother Francis said of Nellie receiving Holy Communion,

At the moment of her First Communion, which she received in a transport of love, Nellie’s features shone as if the presence of the great light in her heart reflected itself in her face. Yes, those who saw Nellie then are well convinced that the child’s appearance was not at all ordinary. This phenomenon was seen more particularly at her other Communions because, after the first, she was taken almost immediately out of the chapel and there were only a chosen few who had the happiness to witness the transformation which took place. Then Nellie had not only a countenance more recollected, an attitude more pious than she customarily had, but an extraordinary radiance.”

It is said that Nellie’s thanksgiving for receiving Holy Communion would continue until late in the afternoon. From the day of her First Holy Communion the odor from Nellie’s mouth caused by the rotting of her gums and jaws ceased. Less than two months after receiving her First Holy Communion Nellie died on Sunday February 2nd 1908, aged 4 years, 5 months and 8 days and was buried in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Cork. Little Nellie's Grave at the Good Shepherd ConventEighteen months after her death permission was granted to have Nellie’s remains transferred to the Good Shepherd Convent Cemetery and upon opening her grave her body was found to be incorrupt. Her body was fresh with no sign of the wasting disease she had at her death. I have visited her grave in the Good Shepherd Convent.

 

I was reminded of Little Nellie by the words of Jesus in our Gospel today,

“For my flesh is real food
and my blood is real drink.
He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood
lives in me
and I live in him.
As I who am sent by the living Father,
myself draw life from the Father,
so whoever eats me will draw life from me.” (John 6:55-58)

In Little Nellie’s transformation after receiving Holy Communion and her extended thanksgiving until the late afternoon we see Jesus living in her and she living in him. She is a beautiful example of Jesus transforming us when we receive him in Holy Communion. Not only was Little Nellie transformed after receiving Jesus in Holy Communion but in a sense the entire Church has been transformed after her. It is reported that Pope Pius X was considering lowering the age for children to receive Holy Communion from twelve to seven and when he heard of Little Nellie he said she was the sign he was awaiting. On August 15th 1910 Pope Pius X published his encyclical Quam Singulari encouraging early and frequent Holy Communion for children. It is good to know that a little girl so near here influenced the Pope in his decision although the bishop of Cork waited until after the decree to officially inform the Pope in writing. I will conclude with some of the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel,

“For my flesh is real food
and my blood is real drink.
He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood
lives in me
and I live in him.
As I who am sent by the living Father,
myself draw life from the Father,
so whoever eats me will draw life from me.” (John 6:55-58)

(The quotation from Mother Francis is taken from the book Princesses of the Kingdom : Jacinta Marto & Nellie Organ by Leo Madigan Photographs are used by kind permission of Leo Madigan.  Another book on Little Nellie by Leo Madigan is Exquisite Miniature: Nellie Organ, 1903-1908 which is also available in Kindle at Exquisite Miniature. Nellie Organ 1903 -1908.)

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013

This homily was delivered when I was engaged in parish ministry in Ireland before joining the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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