Exquisite Miniature: The Life of Nellie Organ (1903 1908)
Chapter 1 - Death in an Orphanage.
In the early evening of Sunday February 2nd 1908, a girl child lay dying in her little bed in a convent in Sunday’s Well, Cork, Ireland. Throughout the religious houses of the country monks and nuns were preparing to sing the Nunc Dimittis at Compline for it was the Feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of the Child Jesus. On that day, in the Temple in Jerusalem, a man advanced in years and merit, received the divine child in his arms and exclaimed in a cry of faith:
Lord, now let Thy servant depart in peace
according to Thy Word, for my eyes have seen Thy salvation.
Perceptive souls in the Sunday’s Well convent sensed a significance between the feast, the canticle, and the death scene being enacted upstairs.
It was a large convent, housing several hundred women and children about 50 professed religious, 150 unmarried mothers and ‘fallen women’ to use the curious euphemism of the time, in the east wing, and some 200 girls and orphans. They were accustomed to sickness; death was not a rarity among them. But this death was different.
A grey melancholy pervaded the rooms and cloisters. Heads were bowed. Food was tasteless. No one spoke of anything but the dying girl upstairs, and then in few words and hushed tones.
This time Nellie, their Nellie, really was dying. This time doubt wasn’t an option. She was in her last agony. It was as if a much-loved princess was leaving her court. Each individual, from the oldest nun to the youngest infant felt that she was losing a part of herself.
The dental malady caries had eroded part of her jawbone so that fragments had simply fallen off. A section of her jowl was a pouch of tiny pebbles. An accident in her first months of life had turned her spinal cord into a burning needle. Tuberculosis had eaten away her respiratory system. At times her each breath was such a struggle that it appeared to be her last.
An adult reduced to a helpless vessel of pain evokes the sympathy even of callous hearts, but to witness a child, still emerging from infancy, undergoing a crucifixion is a form of torture, even for a passer-by. In this instance, however, the little girl’s heart-rending sufferings and her patient acceptance of them had astounded those who attended her.
The girl’s name was Ellen (‘Nellie’) Organ. On that day of her death she was four years, five months and eight days old. Within two years Pope Pius X, a thousand miles away in Rome, would be citing her influence as the reason and justification for one of the most memorable Briefs of his Papacy.
Who was this infant? What made her so extraordinary that even today, over 100 years later, pilgrims come from foreign lands to visit her grave? She has been given no official recognition. She is an embarrassment to some clergy. There are no statues to her. The major libraries of Dublin, both Catholic and secular, have almost no record of her.
To the worldly she is of no more consequence than a name on a tombstone; but those who come under her spell can never forget her because her life, as uneventful as Nazareth, nevertheless encapsulates the mind of God.
Simeon, in the temple, prophesied that the Infant he held in his arms would be the cause of the rise and fall of many in Israel. In a curious way Nellie might be seen as hardly the cause, but perhaps a symbol of the rise and fall of many in Ireland, and indeed, in the Christian world.
Prophets come in many different guises, but few have been as splendidly unconventional as Nellie Organ. Her message was the simplicity of Bethlehem, her method of delivering it was the immolation of Calvary.
Alas, prophets, and we have the Lord’s word for it, are not accepted in their own countries.