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Bringing Life Joyfully

The life and zeal of Edel Quinn.

By: Sherry Weddell

Bringing Life Joyfully: The life and zeal of Edel Quinn. by Sherry Weddell

Work for the day. The saints never lost time. Live for the day. Life is made up of days. Why lose a moment on the way during a brief journey? . . . Never waste time. —Edel Quinn

The author Flannery O’Connor once said that “the pious style is a great stumbling block to Catholics who want to talk to the modern world.” No one would ever have accused Edel of having a pious style at odds with modern life. She had all the usual traits you’d expect to find in a missionary—zeal, a strong relationship with God, and a firm grip on Church teaching—but she had something else: a zest for life and an outstanding sense of humor. “She was great fun,” Frank Duff, her friend and the founder of the Legion of Mary, said of her. “She laughed her way through everything.”

Near the end of her life, when she had been a missionary in Africa for nearly eight years and was dying of tuberculosis, a bishop told her that he would arrange “a funeral worthy of the great apostle that you are.” “One would expect those tender words of the bishop to open the gates of emotion,” Frank Duff said. That she would allow herself “the little luxury of giving into tears. . . .But no. . . . She burst into uncontrollable laughter! It was so typical of her.”

Edel Quinn captured the spirit of the modern world. She was one of those evangelizers “whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the kingdom may be proclaimed.” And she did risk her life, as a single woman traveling around East and Central Africa on behalf of the gospel—through crushing heat and torrential downpours, in poor health, over rutted paths turned to mud, oblivious to danger from lions and other wildlife that shared the road. Thirty years before Pope St. John Paul II delivered his stirring homily at the inauguration of his pontificate, Edel Quinn had lived out his plea: “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ.”

Change of Plans

Edel had intended to be a contemplative nun and had been accepted by the Poor Clares in their Belfast monastery when the diagnosis of tuberculosis cut short that plan. But from the start, she was known as highly energetic and a leader, at the center of any group. She was athletic—as were her three sisters and one brother—and close to her devout mother, Louise, who shared the family penchant for outdoor activity and took a swim in the sea every morning.

She loved her father, Charles, too. He was also the source of Edel’s unusual name. Her father took her to be baptized a few days after her birth—Edel’s mother was still recovering and unable to attend. She told him to be sure to get the name right: the baby was to be named Ada after her Aunt Ada, whose nickname was Adele. Her father, thinking the name was to be Adele, said so to the priest who, compounding the bungling with his own bungling, said, “Of course, Edelweiss, Edel for short.”

Not only did the two men between them give the baby a name never intended by her mother, but as a biographer wrote, “For the rest of her life, Edel was never quite sure whether her name was Edel or Edelweiss, whether she was called after her aunt or a small white Alpine flower.”

After her father had been demoted for misconduct at the bank where he worked, Edel became the de facto head of the family, relied on for her wisdom and unflappable nature. She took a job at a tile import business where she excelled at her work, gradually taking on managerial duties at the office. On one occasion, she stood up to dockworkers who took advantage of a situation to demand more money for unloading tiles at the dock. In the face of Edel’s resistance, they backed down.

She could handle dockworkers easily enough, but she was taken by surprise when the owner proposed marriage. She turned him down—she already had the convent in her sights—prompting him to write, years later, that “I knew her and I didn’t know her at all.” What he didn’t know, aside from her unexpected choice of vocation, was the depth of her spiritual life. Nobody really did.

Forward in Faith

“The Word made flesh”—the Eucharist—“was for her the center of all reality on earth,” her best friend, Mary Walls said, but Edel pursued holiness using the means common to all fervent Catholics, . . . frequent Confession, daily meditation, spiritual reading, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary and . . . the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the constant practice of interior recollections, of self-denial, fraternal charity, and all the other Christian virtues.

Not that anyone ever heard her talk about her spiritual practices or make any reference at all, at any time, to her interior life. Even Mary Walls, who went on to become a Carthusian nun, said that “she never told me anything about her own spiritual life.” Edel “maintained an impenetrable reserve regarding her interior,” Frank Duff wrote.

Edel had a deep devotion to the mother of Jesus, and when she encountered the Legion of Mary, the organization proved to be a natural fit. Although she didn’t yet know it and was still on track for the convent, the course for her life was now set: it would be the Legion.

Edel agreed to lead the Legion’s local unit devoted to befriending the prostitutes crowding Dublin’s slums. She helped out at Sancta Maria Hostel, the halfway house the Legion established for women trying to leave the streets, and quickly became a favorite of the women there. Her gift for sympathetic listening and faith-based encouragement won many—almost all the women were Catholics who had somehow managed to hang onto their faith in spite of their brutal circumstances. Her gift for fun helped ease the atmosphere—she provided endless entertainment in the form of skits, charades, music (she played the piano), and dancing lessons.

A hemorrhage followed by the fateful diagnosis of tuberculosis brought her plans for the convent to an end. She spent nearly a year in a sanatorium, watching as other patients recovered and left, while she never gained ground. Finally, convinced that the enforced inactivity was doing her no good, she checked out of the facility and returned home. She didn’t have a clear sense of direction, but her Legion of Mary work had helped to hone her missionary charism. She had been exposed to a wide variety of people and their needs, and been given the tools—the Legion’s structure and collaborative approach—to address them.

On to Africa

Once back in Dublin, she resumed her work with the Legion, but her colleagues wouldn’t allow her to do anything demanding. She complained, saying she felt they had her “sitting up in a coffin.” Her chance to break out and do the hard stuff came from an unexpected quarter: Africa. The Legion had no presence in East or Central Africa, but when an invitation came in from a bishop there, Edel was ready. The climate would work against her delicate health, but the leaders of the Legion agreed to let her go, knowing that her genius lay in a “sense of mission which seemed to be necessary to her.”

She would be starting from scratch, but as Frank Duff said when sending her off, “she would start a prairie fire there.” And she did. Over nearly eight years, she established and nurtured hundreds of the Legion’s local units from Uganda to the island of Mauritius, far off the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean.

She worked closely with missionaries in both remote and urban locations, keeping in mind one particular goal: to help establish the Church in Africa so that Africans themselves could assume responsibility for the evangelization of their continent. The Legion did this by strengthening the faith life of its individual members and helping their members take the faith to others. This laity-led evangelization was before its time, especially in Africa where only priests and nuns were expected to do “Church work.”

Edel did the work against all odds. She was most at home with Africans and was often unimpressed by white settlers who tended to treat Africans, Indians, and Asians with disdain. Almost everywhere, she encountered obstacles to forming units of mixed races, although occasionally she managed to do so. Some missionary priests and nuns were hostile to her efforts, some felt the Legion was not “African” enough, some were worn-out and indifferent—but many embraced the Legion “as the only effective way of making apostles out of ordinary men and women.”

Her final collapse came after a mission trip undertaken when she could barely walk and was overcome by fatigue. Returning to Nairobi, she rested in the garden of the convent where she lived when she was not on the road. She didn’t seem to realize that she was dying. She asked a nun who was with her, “What’s wrong with me, Mother? I feel very sick.” A priest arrived in time to anoint her, and shortly after, she said, “Jesus” several times and gently slipped away.

Testimonies soon poured in, especially from missionaries who recognized that through her work she really did help to make apostles out of ordinary men and women. Bishop John Heffernan of Zanzibar, who had known her from the start of her service in Africa, said the following of her:

After a year of Miss Quinn’s work, the atmosphere of my diocese had changed. Without any noise, she had brought a germ of life. . . . The renewal of Catholic vitality was noticeable in the Legionaries who were gradually transformed. Priests, too, experienced . . . a spiritual metamorphosis. One could almost feel the passing of grace. What she brought to us was Catholic action in all its purity. . . . She did everything without constraint, joyfully, naturally, and with irresistible humor. She was naturally supernatural.

As Frank Duff remarked, she “ranks with the great builders of the Church in Africa.”

Her cause for canonization is underway.

This article is a selection from saints Who Transformed Their World, by Sherry Weddell. Published by The Word Among Us Press (2019), available at www.wau.org/books

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