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The holy death of St. Jacinta and the 1918 flu

A statue of Jacinta in front of St. Anthony’s Church in Aljustrel

by Donal Anthony Foley –

St. Jacinta Marto endured a prolonged and painful illness that led to her death on the night of Feb. 20, 1920, in the Estefania Hospital in Lisbon. Only a night nurse, Aurora Gomes, was present in the ward that evening, but when questioned, she could not recall any details of the young seer’s death, nor anything about the child herself. As Our Lady foretold, Jacinta died alone, far from her relatives and friends, due to complications arising from the Spanish Flu pandemic, which swept around the world between Jan. 1918 and Dec. 1920.

The Spanish Flu was a particularly virulent influenza pandemic that infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide, leading to between 50 and 100 million deaths. At the time, the world population was less than two billion, so this pandemic affected a significant percentage of mankind, and is regarded as one of the most deadly epidemics ever to have affected humanity, possibly comparable with the Black Death that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. The fact that it happened just as World War I was entering its final stages only made it more deadly, as crowded conditions and large scale troop movements facilitated the spread of the virus.

An unusual characteristic of this pandemic was that, unlike most flu outbreaks that target young children and the elderly, the Spanish Flu particularly affected healthy young adults, causing many deaths. Scientists discovered the reason for this recently; older people who had suffered through the Russian Flu pandemic of 1889-1890 had developed some immunities to the Spanish Flu.

This was the case in Fatima as well. Except for Ti Marto, the father of Francisco and Jacinta, the whole Marto family was struck down by the flu in the autumn of 1918. Around this time, Our Lady appeared to Francisco and Jacinta and said that she would take Francisco to heaven shortly, but asked Jacinta if she would stay longer to suffer for sinners. Francisco died on April 4, 1919 at the age of 11; Jacinta was just shy of age 10 when she passed. The flu also claimed the lives of their older siblings, Florinda and Teresa. One wonders how the Marto parents handled such grief. 

The symptoms of the Spanish Flu included fever and chills, muscle aches, runny nose and a cough. In some people, more serious conditions developed, including bronchopneumonia, a bacterial infection that can cause rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, pleurisy, congestion and other complications. This was the case with Jacinta, whose sufferings grew as her illness progressed.

Jacinta related to Lucia, who was not seriously affected by the flu, that the Blessed virgin had told her she would go to two hospitals, but would not be cured. Rather, she would suffer more for the conversion of sinners and in reparation for sins.

After Francisco’s death, Jacinta became very sad at his absence. Added to this, her bodily pains, including severe headaches, grew worse. With the onset of bronchopneumonia, a purulent abscess formed in her lungs causing her acute pain, but she bore this increased torment with great fortitude.

Her little body was reduced to skin and bone as she wasted away, and this was her condition when she was admitted to Estefania Hospital in January 1920.

First, she stayed in an orphanage run by a sister, Mother Godinho, who was greatly impressed by Jacinta’s wisdom far beyond her years. Jacinta spoke of the sins of the flesh, which cause the most souls to go to hell, and of the moral dangers of coming fashions. She also said, “If men knew what eternity is they would do everything to change their lives.”  Despite her suffering, it was a great delight for her to be staying in a house that had a chapel with the Blessed Sacrament and to be able to receive Holy Communion daily.

It was only a short respite, however, as in February she was moved to the Lisbon hospital under the care of Dr. Castro Freire, one of the most famous children’s specialists in the capital. He diagnosed her condition as purulent pleurisy and osteitis (inflammation) of the seventh and eight left ribs. She also had tuberculosis by this time.

On February 10, she endured an operation to remove her two diseased ribs, an operation that, because of her weakened condition, could only be carried out with a local anesthetic. The operation was a success, but left a large wound in her side that required daily dressing, an agonizing procedure for the young girl.

Jacinta is buried next to Lucia in the Basilica at the Shrine of Fatima

On the night of her death, she said she was feeling worse and the parish priest arrived about 8 p.m. to hear her confession. Despite her protests that she would soon die, he did not give her Holy Communion as Viaticum, thinking she would be fine until morning. She died just two-and-a-half hours later. When Mother Godinho came to help clean her body in the hospital mortuary, she reported positively that there were stains of dried blood on Jacinta’s face.

In dying as she did, Jacinta gives us a wonderful example of conformity with God’s will, in accepting just the sort of death that He willed for her. One can rejoice with St. John Paul II, who stated at Francisco and Jacinta’s rite of beatification at Fatima in 2000, “the Church wishes to put on the candelabrum these two candles which God lit to illumine humanity in its dark and anxious hours.”

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10 Comments
  1. I love my Catholic faith, but the one thing I can’t reconcile is why children and truly good people have to ‘suffer’ for the sins of others.
    As I read this I thought why? Ten and eleven years old.
    Actually all children. Why is suffering necessary?

    • We suffer because Our Lord suffered. He said pick up your cross and follow me. Jacinta, joyfully accepted suffering to save souls, after she saw hell and all the people that were damned, she thought of little else, but saving souls. She chose to mortify her body and to pray many rosaries to save souls. She had the grace of heroic virtue which brought her to a Heavenly reward. All humans suffer, our time here is a vale of tears, yet our merciful God allows our suffering to merit salvation for ourselves and others. That is the whole purpose of our lives here to work out our salvation and ready us to spend eternity with God. When we suffer out of love like Jesus and Jacinta did we are doing the will of our Father. And even the worst suffering here is short lived compared to eternity in Heaven. When suffering is seen in the correct light it makes sense and can be a blessing.

    • Possibly only the pure and innocent could be worthy to cleanse the sins that God required for those of us to be saved?

  2. I pray for the graces to be bold and faithful as this prescious little girl. What a great example of devotion. St. Jacinta pray for us.

  3. There is much theology about suffering it is worth looking into Catholic theology about it. Otherwise we will always ask “why do bad things happen to good people ( especially children)”. The horrid crucifixion of Jesus, Who is God, is also hard to bear and demonstrates the seeming injustice of suffering.

    It is very worthwhile to get the Church view of it all.

  4. Acceptance of the suffering God allows us to experience shows the depth of our love for Him and our total faith that He knows what is best. In accepting it, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”, who suffers in me, as He did through His scourging and crowning with thorns, for the salvation of all mankind. It shows our trust in Him and our desire that He will apply the value of our suffering, uniting it to that of His Son on the cross, to give sinners the grace of conversion, who will not ask for that grace themselves. It shows our desire to unite our love for souls with the desire of the Blessed Mother, and the desire of Jesus himself, that no soul be lost to hell. The child visionaries of Fatima eagerly looked for things they could suffer because they had been given a horrific vision of the souls lost to the sufferings of hell. They desired to suffer here a short time to prevent a soul suffering the pains of hell for all eternity.

  5. Lucia wrote her memoir of Fatima and beyond (“In Her Own Words”) after being told to do so by her bishop. It is a holy and intimate story of Fatima that I can never forget and have reread it several times. It is truly inspired by the Holy Spirit and a life-changing experience.

    https://www.amazon.com/fatima-lucias-words-sister-lucia/dp/0911218459#reader_B00YUY3E0U

  6. Thank you for this wonderful email from the World Apostolate of Fatima. It is a treasure.

  7. The innocent shall lead. Did not our Lord tell us that we are to become like little children in His care.

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