Edel Quinn (1907-1944): Ireland's 20th century apostle to Africa

Edel Quinn (1907-1944): Ireland's 20th century apostle to Africa

Michael Gilchrist

Few Catholics outside the Legion of Mary have probably heard of Irish-born Edel Quinn, one of the outstanding missionary figures of the 20th century. The cause for her canonisation is presently under way. The Belgian Bishop (later Cardinal) Leon-Joseph Suenens, one of the most influential prelates during the Second Vatican Council, and a champion of the lay apostolate, wrote Edel's biography in 1952. This pen-portrait provides only a brief sketch of Edel's eventful life and work. For a more detailed appreciation, the just-published biography 'Edel Quinn 1907-1944' by Desmond Forristal is recommended. Inquiries may be directed to The Legion of Mary, Sydney Senatus, 243 Broadway, Sydney 2007, tel: (02) 9660-6131.

Edel Mary Quinn was born at Greenane, near Kanturk in County Cork in the south of Ireland, on 14 September 1907. Her father was a manager with the National Bank who periodically moved from town to town with each new promotion. A former teacher of Edel, Sister Elizabeth RSM, remembered her as a beautiful child with fair, curly hair, very intelligent, good-humoured and lively. Edel's mother was a devout Catholic who attended daily Mass, and it was she, along with some of Edel's nun-teachers, who exerted an early spiritual influence.

Edel, who made her First Communion in 1916, also became a daily Mass-goer, and, in time, Mass and Holy Communion were to become the pillars of her life and work. Devotion to her morning and night prayers, regular confessions and visits to the Blessed Sacrament further nourished her flowering spiritual life.

Externally, however, Edel gave little indication of being unusually pious. Her natural good looks and wide-ranging talents made her popular with her peers - she more than held her own at tennis, athletics, golf and swimming, played the piano and violin well, sang and acted creditably, and dressed in attractive good taste. More importantly, her attractive personality, transparent sincerity, unselfishness, genuine interest in others, generosity, good-humour and general vivacity drew people to her. She was also very intelligent, diligent in her studies and excelled in her exams. Her future, in a worldly sense, brimmed with possibilities.

Edel's final period at school was spent at an English boarding school run by the FCJ Sisters at Upton. There she was popular and respected. Her athletic prowess made a strong impression and she was elected captain of the school cricket team. One of her teachers recalled "her influence in class and at recreation was not only healthy but uplifting."

It was while in England that Edel became attracted to the nuns and their way of life: the silence of the cloister, the prayerful chanting of Vespers, the spiritual atmosphere and the dedication. After her return to Ireland, she resolved to become a nun and dedicate her life totally to God.

On leaving school at 17, however, Edel's desire for the religious life had to take second place to supporting her financially stretched family - now located in Dublin. She set about completing a course in shorthand and typing and obtained a secretarial position in a tobacconist's shop where the consistently high quality of her work won its owner's high praise. Just 12 months later, the owner himself left to study for the priesthood in Rome as a late vocation.

The new owner was a young Frenchman, Pierre, who was soon enchanted by Edel's striking looks, personality and array of talents. They played tennis and danced together. A lapsed Catholic, Pierre returned to the practice of the faith under Edel's influence; but his marriage proposal was politely turned down when Edel explained her plan to enter the Poor Clares, an order of contemplative nuns.

Turning point

By 1927, Edel was active in a Loreto Convent Sodality social club for poor children where her skills in music and acting were put to good use. At one Sodality meeting, in what proved to be a turning point in her life, Edel was invited by another member, Mona Tierney, to attend a meeting of the recently founded Legion of Mary.

Cardinal Suenens writes: "The atmosphere of that meeting, where prayers and action mingled so closely, had completely captured Edel. In the little group she had recognised the spirit of the Upper Room in Jerusalem and of the first Christians ... Edel felt the Acts of the Apostles were continuing there under her eyes. Her mind was made up: She would ask to be admitted to the Legion" (p.42).

Edel's extraordinary dedication and zeal soon came to the notice of the Legion's founder, Frank Duff, who asked her if she would take the presidency of a praesidium which worked for the moral rescue and rehabilitation of Dublin prostitutes. She accepted, taking charge of the Sancta Maria Hostel where her kindness and sympathy generally overcame the insults and crude language.

By now, Edel - who was an avid reader - had come under the influence of the writings of St Thérèse of Lisieux: aiming for unobtrusive holiness by doing little things as perfectly as possible and looking for opportunities to make small, hidden sacrifices. Other spiritual nourishment came from St John of the Cross and St Louis-Marie de Montfort, while each day she spent up to 30, minutes before the Blessed Sacrament and recited the 15 mysteries of the Rosary.

By early 1932, with her family at last financially secure, Edel decided it was time to enter the Poor Clares. Her plan, however, received a cruel blow when she suffered a severe haemorrhage, diagnosed as advanced and incurable tuberculosis. The next 18 months were spent trying to recuperate at a sanatorium.

But with her condition basically unchanged and the sanatorium costs a burden on her family, Edel decided to leave uncured, reasoning that she might as well be active and useful before she died. so she took the prescribed medical treatment and for the time being accepted less arduous tasks with the Legion.

The Legion of Mary had by now spread over all of Ireland and much of the world. In 1936, a request came to the Legion's Dublin headquarters that Edel be sent as the Legion's envoy to East Africa. To many Dublin Legionaries, the idea of sending a delicate young woman on such a potentially exhausting and hazardous mission seemed preposterous, but Frank Duff nevertheless gave it his backing arguing that a warm climate might benefit Edel's health. He also recognised Edel's extraordinary qualities and untapped potential: "You can't keep a wild bird in a cage. She must be given her chance. Edel is going to make history - if she is let."


Edel gladly accepted the challenge, departing from Ireland on 24 October 1936. Farewelling her friends at London's Tilbury docks, Edel told them prophetically, "I won't be coming back." Soon afterwards in a letter to Frank Duff, she wrote: "Whatever the consequences may be, rejoice that you had the faith and courage to emulate Our Lord, in His choice of weak things."

For the next eight years, the centre of Edel's missionary work in eastern and southern Africa would be Nairobi in Kenya. From there, despite her precarious health, she travelled thousands of kilometres - usually along rough dirt tracks - back and forth across much of what is now Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa - and even Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

Overcoming the understandable scepticism of local missionary priests by her pleasant insistence - "Please try the Legion for Our Lady's sake" - Edel coaxed, explained, trained and organised as scores of new praesidia sprang up. The zeal and capabilities of the newly recruited African legionaries edified everyone. Two by two they went out into the villages and hillsides, teaching catechism to children, instructing catechumens, visiting the sick and dying, and persuading non-Christians to visit a priest.

In one of her many reports to Dublin, Edel described a Christmas Eve midnight Mass: "The church was packed with Africans - about 1,500 were there, I was told. The people sang, of course. It was a treat to see the African boys as acolytes, perfect discipline and reverence, not a mistake. When it came to Communion, practically everyone in the Church must have gone up to the rails, because the two priests took half an hour before they finished. It was certainly an unforgettable sight ... They were conspicuously reverent in church and joined in singing the Latin responses and the Credo in irreproachable fashion."

With a number of praesidia set up in one area, Edel moved on, visiting bishops, priests, convents, setting up new praesidia and then returning to consolidate. Among the praesidia was one for lepers on the shores of Lake Victoria. On April 4, 1937, she set up the first Curia [a federation of praesidia in the same area] in Nairobi, uniting it to the Concilium [headquarters] in Dublin.

Edel's travelling burden was somewhat eased when the Legion provided her with a small car. One missionary recalled: "The roads are dreadful and impossible during the rainy season. Miss Quinn had an old dilapidated two-seater car. The noise of its approach, piercing the African silence, became a welcome sound to many a lonely Mission; she brought happiness wherever she went. Her energy was amazing. Her friends found it impossible to make her rest - even during the cruel heat of midday. There was about her an urgency, a conviction that there was so much for her to do and so little time in which to do it."

Time and again she was laid low with the ever-present TB, along with regular bouts of malaria, pneumonia, dysentery, and sheer exhaustion. But her will-power, forgetfulness of herself, her commitment to the apostolate, prevailed against the odds - thanks, Edel believed, to the power of the Eucharist.

However, the years in Africa inevitably took their toll. The nuns in a little Convent in Malawi were alarmed when Edel arrived one day in 1941, utterly exhausted and the picture of death. They put her to bed, did what they could to ease her fever and prayed for her recovery. One of the nuns, a French Canadian, stayed up with her all night. In the morning the patient seemed to be breathing more easily, but as the nun tried to slip away quietly, Edel called out feebly, "Sister, I know you thought I was going to die during the night." Then she added: "Don't worry about me, Sister, please. Our Lady has told me that I have three more years to work for her."

By 1943, Edel's work had become widely known throughout eastern and southern Africa. The Legion had proved its value, bringing new life and vigour into parishes - an extension of the priest, enabling him to reach out to the most remote corners of his parish. Under Edel's leadership, there were many conversions and returns of the lapsed to practice, as well as a growth in prayer and holiness among the legionaries.

On 6 March 1944, following a prolonged, exhausting travel schedule, Edel embarked on an 18-hour train journey from Nairobi to Kisumu, but her declining health forced an extended visit to be cut short and she returned more dead than alive to Nairobi on April 11. On May 9, she wrote to Frank Duff: "I am not exactly a heavy-weight these days ... I am paying for my Kisumu trip and the Curia; it proved too much for me ...". Then, following a devastating series of heart-attacks, she at last succumbed on the evening of May 12 with the words "Jesus, Jesus" on her lips.

Qualities of holiness

She was buried in a small Nairobi cemetery reserved for missioners. Over her tomb was placed a marble Celtic cross with the inscription underneath:

"Edel Quinn: Envoy of the Legion of Mary in East Africa from 30th October, 1936, to 12th May, 1944, on which day she died at Nairobi.

"She fulfilled this mission with such devotion and courage as itself to stir every heart and to leave the Legion of Mary and Africa itself for ever in her debt. The Holy Father himself paid tribute to her great services to the Church ...".

Frank Duff was convinced that Edel Quinn would be canonised, considering that she had all the essential qualities of holiness: "She saw a star and aimed for it and would cut her way through forest and mountain to reach it, ready to tackle anything, willing to endure anything. She really loved God with her whole heart and soul. She was never thinking about herself but was always deeply concerned about everybody else. And she was so cheerful."

A simple poem given her by Dublin friend Mona Tierney was one of Edel's favourites and provides a fitting epitaph:

What is all, when all is told,
that ceaseless striving for fame and gold,
the passing joys and the bitter tears?
We are only here for a few short years.

What is all, just passing through?
A cross for me and a cross for you.
Ours seems heavy when others' seem light.
But God in the end sets all things right.

He tempers the dark with heavenly gold.
And that is all when all is told.

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