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Holy children and teens of the Church

The Church recognizes fifty-one teenagers and sixty-eight children as saints or blesseds. Almost all of them died as martyrs. Is that why Ellen Organ, who died over a hundred years ago, has not been declared a saint?

Ellen Organ (1903-1908) depicted living in the Convent of the Good Shepherd Sisters. (Image: Wikipedia)

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.

Endnote:

1 Fr. Michael J. K. Fuller offers a fascinating and thought-provoking way to view the hagiographical stories about the saints, specifically the virgin martyrs like Saints Agnes and Maria Goretti in The Virgin Martyrs: A Hagiographical and Mystagogical Interpretation.


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About Dawn Beutner 105 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of The Leaven of the Saints: Bringing Christ into a Fallen World (Ignatius Press, 2023), and Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year also from Ignatius Press. She blogs at dawnbeutner.com.

7 Comments

  1. In Roman Catholic theology, the saints are in heaven. In the Bible, the saints are on earth. In the Bible, everyone who has received Jesus Christ by faith is a saint. In Roman Catholic practice, the saints are revered, prayed to, and in some instances, worshiped. In the Bible, saints are called to revere, worship, and pray to God alone. In scripture there are 67 uses of the plural “saints”compared to only one use of the singular word “saint”. The Bible is always 100% accurate.

    • Brian, I must point out that your post – most of it – comes directly from the last paragraph of an “answered” question on the website “gotquestions”, which is not exactly a bastion of Christian/Catholic knowledge & understanding. Just saying…

      Without getting too deeply into theology, I must correct your statement about saints being “worshipped”. Nope – absolutely not. Revered? Yes, much like a hero that you can relate to. “Prayed to”? In a sense – we do ask for their intercession to God for us, much in the same way we ask a friend or family member to “keep me in your prayers”. It’s not the same as praying to God – different approach & mindset. But we do NOT worship saints, the Blessed Virgin Mary, statues, paintings, or any other thing – except for God. I humbly ask you to not just post something because you found it on the first website you came to. Catholics have 2000 years of unchanged doctrine, based on agreed-upon Biblical interpretation handed down directly from the Apostles & early church fathers, most backed up by solid history & documentation. We believe the Bible too.

      • Unchanged doctrine? Remember as a kid we were adamantly told not to touch the host as it was the body of Christ and was sooooo holy that something bad would happen if we even tried to unstick it from the roof our our mouth? Now they put it in your hand to put in your own mouth. Trust me, the church changes according to which way the wind blows in the congregation. They’re trying like mad to get the lost sheep back into the lost flock. Using dead people, Mary, relics or anything else as a way to God is meaningless according to the Creator, but accepted and encouraged by sinful man. “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” 1 Timothy 2:5
        Satan also believes in the bible, but like a lot of Catholics, doesn’t live by it alone.

          • By the grace of God, yes. I was your typical Catholic…go to church on Sunday, but lived and thought like the world the rest of the week. Only flashed the Catholic card when necessary. I realize God doesn’t open the hearts and minds of everyone, just the people He chose before the foundation of the universe. He sure opened mine! “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8,9 This and many others verses I never heard as a Catholic (only because they skip over a lot of scriptures that don’t fit their narrative….not your fault, just false and bad leadership). Rest assured, I’m not a part of any of those “weird” churches you might hear about…..they give Christianity a bad name….God will deal with them in His own time. I truly believe there are a few Christians in the Catholic church, but the leadership has been drifting away from the truth for centuries. I encourage you to read the scriptures and test them against Catholic teaching. Ask God before you read to open your eyes to His truth and not mans…you’ll never regret it! You can fall on your knees at home and repent of your unbelief and sins and ask for Gods’ mercy….trust me , He hears all sincere prayers through the only true mediator Jesus Christ. “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” 1 Timothy 2:5 Would love to see everyone on this sight turn and trust in the Lord for salvation.

  2. Don’t forget St. Aquilina ! She was a teenager when she was martyred. Her Feast Day is June 13th – the same day as St. Anthony of Padua. Her story would make a grown man cry imo.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Holy children and teens of the Church | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers
  2. Holy children and teens of the Church | Franciscan Sisters of St Joseph (FSJ) , Asumbi Sisters Kenya

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