When Ellen Organ died at the age of four, the adults who knew her considered her to be a saint. More people began to believe in Ellen’s sanctity when her body was found to be incorrupt a year later. Even Pope Saint Pius X was apparently so moved by the little girl’s devotion that he changed a practice of the universal Church as a result. So why hasn’t Ellen, who died over a hundred years ago, been declared a saint?
The Church recognizes fifty-one teenagers and sixty-eight children as saints or blesseds. Almost all of them died as martyrs. Most of these young people died during a time of severe persecution in their native country.
For example, Saint Peter Chong Won-ji was a teenager who was executed in Korea in 1866, along with five other adults during a time of government persecution. A group of forty-eight martyrs who died in Abitinae (modern Tunisia) in the year 304 included a priest named Saturninus, as well as his infant son and his other children. Other teenage martyrs have come from Algeria, Belgium, China, Germany, Guatemala, Italy, Lebanon, Mexico, Thailand, and other countries.
Perhaps the most famous young martyrs are those known to Catholics as the Holy Innocents. An unknown number of baby boys lost their lives when King Herod sought to execute the newborn King who was prophesied to replace him. Obviously, persecution of Catholics has led to the deaths of both adults and children many times over the centuries, but lists of the names and ages of those who died have not always survived.
Not all the names of young martyrs are unfamiliar to us. Saint Agnes of Rome was only thirteen at the time of her martyrdom, which probably occurred in the fourth century. Saints Justus and Pastor, ages thirteen and nine, respectively, died in Alcala, Spain, in the year 304. According to tradition, when Justus and Pastor heard that the emperor had renewed the persecution against Christians, they didn’t wait to be found; they went to the Roman governor and publicly proclaimed themselves to be followers of Christ. They encouraged one another while they were being flogged, and it’s said that the governor was so embarrassed by their courage that he ordered them to be beheaded quickly and quietly.
Some teenage martyrs have been named martyrs of purity because they chose to give up their lives during a rape attempt. Saint Maria Goretti (1890-1902) is the most famous of these, but Blessed Albertina Berkenbrock (1919-1931) of Brazil, Blessed Karolina Kozkowna (1898-1914) of Poland, and Blessed Anna Kolesárová (1928-1944) of Slovakia are recognized for the same reason.1
Four teenagers and five children are recognized as holy by the Church but did not die as martyrs. The teenagers are: Saint Rupert of Bingen, a generous and holy duke of Germany who died in the eighth century when he was only nineteen years old; Saint Rose of Viterbo (1234-1253), a third order Franciscan and prophet who died in Italy at the age of eighteen; Saint Dominic Savio (1842-1857), a devout boy who wanted to become a priest but died young; and Blessed Carlo Acutis (1991-2006), an Italian teenager who inspired others with his faith before his painful death from leukemia.
The five children who are recognized by the Church but did not die as martyrs include Saints Francisco and Jacinta Marto, the famous Fatima visionaries who died of influenza in Portugal in the early twentieth century. Blessed Imelda Lambertini (1322-1333) was a devout Italian girl who died shortly after receiving her first Holy Communion. Blessed Fina of San Gimignano, Italy, died as a young girl in the year 1251 but bore many painful illnesses with patience.
Saint Dioscorus narrowly escaped martyrdom in the year 250 in Alexandria, Egypt; the adults arrested with him did not escape that fate. Although he was only a child, Dioscorus did not renounce his Christian faith and is therefore considered a confessor of the faith and a saint.
Who was Ellen Organ, and could she ever be added to the Church’s calendar with these other young people?
Ellen was born on August 24, 1903, in Ireland, the youngest of four children. When her mother died, her father tried to care for them for a time, but he eventually placed his children in the care of others.
Ellen, nicknamed Nellie, was only three years old when she was placed in a school run by religious sisters. She had apparently had a serious fall, and her spine was crooked, which caused her pain and left her mostly bedridden. She therefore spent the rest of her short life in the school’s infirmary.
But Nellie was a spiritually precocious child. Although the sisters who cared for her admitted that she was sometimes as mischievous as any small child, Nellie was also quick to apologize. She loved the statues of saints and gradually demonstrated a clear understanding of the presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. When the sisters approached a priest to ask if little Nellie could be allowed to receive Communion, he scoffed. But after he met with the girl, he changed his mind. He recognized that this child had somehow reached the age of reason and that she truly realized that our Lord was present in Holy Communion. She also repeatedly and fervently requested to receive Him. The priest requested and received permission from his bishop to allow Nellie to receive her First Holy Communion when she was only four years old.
At this point, Nellie was in constant pain from tuberculosis and cavities in her mouth. She could barely eat, but she was constantly happy. The sisters and visitors were amazed at the little girl’s patience throughout it all. They noticed that when the pain got too much for her, Nellie would hold a crucifix in her hands and simply look at Jesus. “Poor Holy God, Poor Holy God,” she would sadly say. After her death on February 2, 1908, the story about her life and her faith spread, and she became known as Little Nellie of Holy God. It’s not surprising that Pope Pius X, who had been considering lowering the age of reception for Holy Communion to the age of reason, was moved by Nellie’s story. [Editor’s note: In the Eastern and Ancient Oriental Churches, unlike in the Roman rite, the sacraments of baptism, chrismation, and Holy Communion are normally administered at the same time to newborns.]
So why is she not considered a saint of the Church? Some say it is because of Nellie’s age at death. After all, as Catholics, we already believe that baptized children who have not yet reached the age of reason are welcomed into Heaven. Unfettered by sin, how could God refuse them? Do we even need to call little Nellie a saint when it’s clear that she’s in Heaven with many other innocent children?
But the Church does not recognize men, women, and children as saints in Heaven because we believe that we put them there. We recognize saints and blesseds for many reasons, including the fact that we benefit from having spiritual models to follow. Would it not be encouraging to people of all ages and all nations to remember the example of a motherless child who learned how to offer her sufferings to Christ? Would it remind us to really look at a crucifix and think about what it means? Would it help us to be more appreciative of the gift of receiving the Holy Eucharist?
Nellie, of course, does not care whether the word “Saint” precedes her name because she is blissfully happy. But we can (privately) ask her to pray for us, particularly that we will learn from her and grow in our devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.
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