Witnesses: Edel Quinn, Irish Missionary

In spite of ill health and weakness, Edel Quinn spent many years of her life working strenuously to help spread the faith in Africa. She has been described as “one of the greatest Irish missionaries in the history of the Church, and an inspiration to millions of people worldwide.”

On 14 September 1907, Edel was born in Kanturk in Ireland. Edel grew up an intelligent, highly spirited girl beloved by teachers and pupils at her convent schools. At about sixteen she was sent to board at Upton Hale Convent near Liverpool to complete her education, but soon a disaster overtook the family which changed their lives. Her father Charles had become a compulsive gambler and had spent not only his own money but also some belonging to the bank where he worked.

He was facing a possible charge of embezzlement. Mercifully, the bank exercised leniency and he was instead reduced to a very low position in Dublin. The salary was insufficient to supply the needs of the family. It was necessary for Edel to work in order to help support them. After a secretarial course, Edel obtained employment as a secretary in a small Dublin firm.

In 1929 Edel was introduced by a friend to the Legion of Mary. This lay apostolic organisation founded in 1921 by Frank Duff in Ireland was making great progress. Its objective: “to live the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ in union with Mary”, was in accord with Edel’s own thinking and she found there a means of expressing her own burning love for Jesus and for Mary. She became a member, attended weekly meetings and spent many hours in apostolic work, visiting the poor, the sick, the old and housebound and encouraging the enthronement of the Sacred Heart in homes. Other Legionaries noticed her qualities of efficient gentleness and kindness, her courage and determination.

Frank Duff heard of her and in 1931 made her president of the “Our Lady, Refuge of Sinners” branch, with the difficult task of caring for prostitutes who were wishing to change, and running the Sancta Maria Hostel. In spite of bodings of those who thought her too young for the work, she coped admirably and her efforts were rewarded.

By September 1931 Edel’s family were no longer dependent on her salary, so she made plans to enter the Convent of Poor Clares. This was not to be, as Edel was found to be in an advanced state of tuberculosis, a disease for which there was at that time no known cure, but rest and fresh air.

Instead of entering the convent Edel went to the sanatorium in Co. Wicklow where she remained for nine months, suffering the extreme cold of the fresh air treatment. Her greatest pain was the absence of daily Mass, and she consoled herself with spiritual reading, especially ‘L’Esprit de Sainte Therese’, the little saint who had herself suffered from this distressing illness.

At the end of nine months Edel returned home. Although she was not cured, the treatment had eased her cough and her breathing. Soon she took up employment again, and also her work for the Legion, but was recommended to follow a less arduous programme.

In 1936 a vacancy for a Legion envoy occurred in East Africa and Frank Duff asked Edel if she would accept this role, in spite of protests from other Council members. So, a radiantly happy Edel became the Legion’s envoy to East Africa, with a territory of 750,000 square miles awaiting her efforts. The Apostolic Delegate promised his support and recommended her to his priests.

Travelling by sea with a party of missionary priests and nuns she set out on 24 October 1936, landing four weeks later in Mombasa and then on to Nairobi. Her task was twofold: to promote the Legion, and at the same time to educate both priests and lay people into a deeper understanding of the role of the laity in the Church.

Some priests were less co-operative than others, but “her evident holiness, her conviction, heroic self-sacrifice and her smile would open doors.” In her first six months she had set up 14 praesidia with 200 active members, and she continued this demanding work for the next eight years.

September 1937 saw Edel arrive in Tanganyika. Each day began with Mass at 6am followed by private prayer until 7.30. A quick breakfast followed with desk work until 10am when she would set off on a journey of perhaps 200 miles visiting missions and promoting the Legion. Evening meal at 7pm was followed by a short recreation with the Sisters who “thought she was a saint”, and then preparations for the next day’s work.

Transport was always difficult, almost non-existent and a taxi could be seven hours or more late in arriving. Roads were rough, sometimes impossible. She once spent the night in soaking wet clothes in a car with a canvas roof with wheels stuck in the mud.

Having completed her planned programme in Tanganyika she moved on to Western Kenya for her next intensive campaign and then on to Uganda in September 1938. Here she was forced to rest for two weeks as her health had been poor. She wrote to Dublin “the cough hasn’t gone, of course, and is always inclined to turn up.”

In Uganda she found less co-operation but one parish was truly remarkable. A report from the priest said “I am grateful to God and Our Lady for letting me start the Legion”. It had brought 112 lax Catholics back to the Sacraments, 134 infants to baptism, 18 marriages validated and 23 pagans to instruction. After spending a very profitable few months on the French-speaking island of Mauritius she moved on to Nyasaland (Malawi), arriving there in a state of exhaustion.

Illness followed illness, dysentery, malaria, pleurisy. In between these attacks she pushed on with the work, until asked by a priest friend: “Do you realise you are dying?” which caused her to admit how ill she was.

The “old trouble” had resurfaced and she was flown to South Africa and entered the sanatorium there, transferring later to a Catholic Hospital where she was able to receive Holy Communion each day. After nearly a year she showed a slight improvement, leaving hospital and making the exhausting journey to Nairobi which she had left four years previously. Although she could only walk slowly and with difficulty she visited Legion Praesidia in the area.

In March 1944 she made what proved to be her last Legion visit – an all-night train journey to Kisumu to revitalise Groups there. Back in Nairobi she stayed with the Carmelite Sisters, and it was in their company that she died peacefully, speaking her last words: “Jesus, Jesus”, on 12 May, 1944.

Soon came reports that favours were being received through her intercession, and in December 1994 Pope John Paul II declared her Venerable.

(Kitty D’Encer)

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