Edel Quinn was an unlikely missionary and servant of God. Young, single, female, and knowingly living out her last few years with an incurable case of tuberculosis, she set out from Ireland for Africa in 1936 to continue her evangelization work in the wilds of Africa. Incredibly, none of these were obstacles to Edel, who viewed her life not as her own, but rather as an instrument to be used by Jesus and Mary where there was a need. To the end, she sacrificed herself in order to bring God to others, with grace, humor, and fearlessness in the face of unthinkable difficulties, and for that she is remembered in the Church – and especially among devotees of the Legion of Mary – as a saint.
Edel was born in Ireland in 1907 to a devoted, middle class Catholic family. Known from childhood for her cheery disposition and willingness to serve, Edel grew up with a deep longing to join religious life as a member of the Poor Clares. However at age nineteen, as she made preparation to enter the convent, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent eighteen months in a sanatorium. Edel was ultimately denied entrance to the order and would eventually succumb to her illness – though not for several more years.
Finding the Legion of Mary
Just before her stay in the sanatorium, Edel discovered the Legion of Mary. Started in Dublin by a layperson, Frank Duff, in 1922, the organization existed (and still exists) as a lay apostolate devoted to bringing souls to God through acts of mercy and a Marian-focused spirituality. As a member of the Legion, Edel had the opportunity to perform works of mercy among the poor, elderly, homebound, sick, and imprisoned. Much of her work involved providing support to single mothers and fallen women seeking a better life in the impoverished streets of Dublin. The Legion of Mary was a natural fit for Edel: it did not require her to be a religious, allowed her to practice her faith in a form of missionary work, and was reflective of her already deep devotion to Our Lady. Edel eventually left the sanatorium as it drained her family’s finances, and was determined to be of help to her family and community as long as she could, including returning to her work with the Legion.
A Call to Serve
As the Legion of Mary spread throughout Ireland, to Scotland, the Americas, and beyond, it became clear a mission was needed in Africa. Sensing her calling, Edel appealed to Frank Duff and the Legion leadership to be sent, noting she was not “going on a picnic,” but rather, “with her eyes open” to the reality of what such a mission would involve. Deep down, she also knew she would most likely never see her family again. Despite concerns about her deteriorating health – not to mention her vulnerability as a young, single woman – eventually her persistence prevailed and Edel landed in Kenya charged with spreading the Legion as its Envoy to East Africa.
Her Work Was Done
The physical toll required of such a position would have been much for someone in perfect health; yet Edel managed it as if there were no obstacles in her path, or rather, embraced the obstacles knowing that they were simply opportunities for sanctification. Her position involved traveling across multiples countries, by plane, train, and often in a beat-up old car she jokingly nicknamed the Rolls Royce, which she taught herself to drive. Often, she would be waylaid by mudslides, extreme weather, and wild animals as she traversed across Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, and Mauritius. All the while, her body continued to deteriorate as tuberculosis took its toll. And yet, she was wildly successful, setting up new praesidia – chapters – of the Legion wherever she went, bringing African Catholics a new form of contemplative spirituality, and empowering them to more deeply serve the needy within their own communities.
What We Can Learn From Edel
As a saint-in-the-making, Edel possessed admirable virtues and cultivated a way of life that is worth emulating. From her unfaltering confidence in Mary to her trust in the Eucharist, Edel’s simple faith demonstrates a lifestyle that stands in contrast to the materialism of the secular world.
Edel was known for her horror of fame and distaste for attention, despite all she achieved. Given the exotic and exciting nature of her work, her friends and the Legion of Mary headquarters in Dublin constantly sought stories and photos of her adventures. Rather than make the work about herself and her successes, Edel would instead diminish her own achievements to shine a light on the work that was performed by African Legionaries, exclusively through the will of God and the grace of Our Lady. She was known to sign her letters with, “This is not for publication,” and would only cheerfully pose for photos that were shared in Maria Legionis magazine, the official publication of the Legion, after expressing great reluctance.
This tendency toward self-forgetfulness existed in every aspect of her life and ministry. There was a particular group of nuns that let Edel stay at their monastery when she performed extension work in their region. One time, the sisters woke one morning to find Edel asleep on a bench on the front porch, where she had been all night without even a blanket to keep her warm. When asked why she had not knocked, Edel responded, “You sisters work so hard! I wouldn’t have dreamed of waking you.” Despite their assurances that it was not a bother, it was not the last time the sisters found Edel curled up on their porch in the morning.
From her own diaries, we see Edel’s absolute devotion to daily Mass and receiving the Eucharist. “Always as many Masses as possible,” she wrote to herself. “What a desolation life would be without the Eucharist.” One journal passage illuminates her total trust in Mary, which was borne out in the witness of her life. “In regard to Mary, I must preserve the attitude of a child to its mother: I must trust that she will do best. Just tell her my needs or intentions; leave the rest to her. Turn to her for everything, that she may teach us to love Jesus, to serve the Father, to become like a child in our behavior. Utter trust.”
Through everything, Edel maintained her sense of humor, her total unselfishness, and a burning desire to fearlessly bring Christ to all she met.
Edel died in 1944 in Nairobi, finally succumbing to the tuberculosis her body had been fighting since her teenage years. At her funeral, over 20 priests were present, along with a massive crowd of all classes. The crowd recited the Magnificat over her grave, whose inscription reads, “Envoy of the Legion of Mary in East Africa…She fulfilled this mission with such devotion and courage as to stir every heart and to leave the Legion of Mary and Africa itself forever in her debt. The Holy Father himself paid tribute to her great services to the Church.” In 1994, Saint Pope John Paul II declared Edel Quinn “Venerable.”
Prayer for the Beatification of Venerable Edel Quinn
Eternal Father, I thank you for the grace you gave to your servant, Edel Quinn, of striving to live always in the joy of your presence, for the radiant charity infused into her heart by your Holy Spirit, and for the strength she drew from the Bread of Life to labor until death for the glory of your name, in loving dependence on Mary, Mother of the Church. Confident, O Merciful Father, that her life was pleasing to you, I beg you to grant me, through her intercession, the special favor I now implore…, and to make known by miracles the glory she enjoys in Heaven, so that she may be glorified also by your Church on earth, through Christ Our Lord. Amen.
You can also find a prayer for the beatification of the Legion of Mary’s founder, Servant of God Frank Duff, here. A collection of some of Edel’s most inspiring insights on Mary, the Eucharist, and the faith is compiled here.