On Christmas Day, Catie O'Brien, 7, was suffering with a fatal illness when she received her first Holy Communion at St. Benedict Catholic Church in Mount Pleasant.
She told her mother she was going to heaven to become a patron saint for kids with cancer and other life-threatening diseases. She asked her parents to start a fund in her name to benefit St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
Catie died Jan. 25.
"She had the innocence of a child, but she had the wisdom of an adult," said her mother, Christine O'Brien of Mechanicsburg, Pa.
Catie was a granddaughter of George and Jane O'Brien of Mount Pleasant. "She was a great little kid. She thought of other people rather than herself. It's a great loss for the family," George O'Brien said.
Since her death, nearly $2 million has been raised in Catie's name for St. Jude. Marlo Thomas, daughter of the late entertainer and St. Jude founder Danny Thomas, contacted more than 100,000 donors on behalf of the fund established in Catie's memory.
"Donations just started pouring in," Christine O'Brien said.
In January, the family took Catie on a pilgrimage to the legendary sanctuary at Lourdes, France, where she could not feel the 40-degree water until it reached her spine. Ten days after returning home, she passed away, George O'Brien said. She kept her feisty sense of humor until the end, although the cancer in its final stage robbed her of her sight. When told someone she knew had arrived, she protested, "I'm blind, I'm not deaf," he said. "She fought to the end."
In December, Catie asked her mother to start a fund in her name to pay the $1.4 million daily operating expenses for St. Jude on her birthday, which is today.
"Never before has a child asked to be remembered this way at St. Jude. We are very grateful that Catie's family has chosen to honor her generous spirit by helping us work miracles for many other children whose families are praying for one right now," said Jennifer Haslip, senior director of public relations for American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities, the fundraising arm of St. Jude. "Catie's final wish, to raise enough funds to cover the cost to run St. Jude for one day is unique, and we appreciate her family's support," Haslip said.
Catie had a form of spinal cancer so rare that only 13 cases have been diagnosed. She was anointed with blessed oils while receiving the Sacrament of the Sick in July at St. Benedict in Mount Pleasant. Her mother wears a Miraculous Medal on a bracelet that someone here sent her. The family celebrated Easter at St. Benedict, where a priest said Catie's struggle and enduring legacy is the story of Easter, Christine O'Brien said.
St. Jude relies on support from patients, families, volunteers and donors so it can continue its mission to find cures and save children with cancer and other catastrophic diseases. Their generosity enables St. Jude to ensure that no child is ever denied treatment because of the family's inability to pay, Haslip said.
St. Jude has developed treatments that have helped push overall survival rates for childhood cancers from less than 20 percent when the hospital opened in 1962 to more than 70 percent. During the past three years, 84 cents of every dollar received has supported research and treatment at St. Jude.