CORK woman Edel Quinn lived a relatively short life, dying at the age of 36. But she made such an impact in this brief time that she was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II in 1994, 50 years after her death.
For a person to be pronounced Venerable, the Roman Catholic Church must posthumously declare the person ‘heroic in virtue’ during an investigation leading up to their canonisation as a saint, and ‘heroic in virtue’ is exactly how Edel was remembered by those who knew her.
Born near Kanturk on September 14, 1907, Edel Mary Quinn was the eldest of five children. Her father, Charles Quinn, was a manager in the National Bank and with every promotion, the family had to move.
During Edel’s formative years, she lived in Clonmel, Cahir, Enniscorthy and Tralee. Many years later, a plaque would be unveiled in Denny Street, Tralee, commemorating her residence there between 1921 and 1924.
Edel was sent to finish her education at an English boarding-school at Upton Hall, Cheshire, managed by the Sisters of the Faithful Companions of Jesus. It was in this setting that her spiritual side blossomed. While her peers knew her as the celebrated captain of the cricket team, Edel regularly attended mass and set aside time for prayer daily.
She was so impressed by the lives of the Sisters of the Faithful Companions of Jesus that she decided to enter the convent and devote her life to God upon her return to Ireland.
Her return was to come sooner than expected when, in July, 1924, Edel was informed that she would no longer be able to attend the school as her father could not afford to pay her fees. He had run up serious debts on horse-racing and had even taken money from the bank he managed in Tralee to help pay them off.
As a result, Charles was demoted and sent to work at a junior post in Dublin.
Now 17 years of age, Edel moved home to her family’s rented flat in Monkstown and postponed her entrance to religious life to help support her family financially.
Edel soon obtained a secretarial position in a tobacconist’s shop. After some time, she left this position to take up a better-paid job working for Pierre Landrin of the Chagny Tile Company.
Around this time, Edel attended a meeting of the Legion of Mary. Impressed by the aims and beliefs of this Roman Catholic Marian movement, she joined the legion and committed herself to carrying out all aspects of its mission, including visiting city slums and hospitals, where it is said that her cheerful disposition made her a favourite with the patients. Edel’s enthusiasm for her work soon came to the attention of the Legion’s founder, Frank Duff. He was so impressed by her that he asked her to take over the presidency of the praesidium which worked for the moral rescue and rehabilitation of Dublin sex workers.
In 1932, with her family financially stable once again, Edel attended a series of successful interviews for admission into the Poor Clares. It was decided that she would enter the Belfast convent on March 25 of that year.
However, Edel’s dream was dealt a cruel blow when she was diagnosed with an advanced and incurable form of tuberculosis. She was sent to recuperate at the Newcastle Sanatorium, close to the Wicklow Mountains. After 18 months, and with her condition basically unchanged, Edel decided that the financial cost of her stay in the sanatorium was too great a burden to place on her family. She left uncured, reasoning that she might as well devote what time she had left to helping others rather than wasting away on a hospital bed.
Edel resumed her work for the Legion, adopting less stressful roles.
In 1936, a request was sent to the Dublin headquarters asking for Edel to be deployed as the Legion’s envoy to East Africa.
Despite the protestations of many who feared for Edel’s health and safety, Duff argued that a warmer climate might actually benefit her. He also recognised Edel’s potential, saying, ‘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’. On October 30, 1936, Edel set sail from London on a three-week long journey to Mombassa.
Upon arrival, she got straight to work forming the first African Legion of Mary group. For the next eight years, she travelled all over Africa, helping where she could, and translating the Legion of Mary pamphlets into several languages. The approach of her car, which had been provided by the Legion of Mary, was said to have been a welcome sight to many a lonely mission.
Unfortunately, Edel was regularly laid low with the ever-present tuberculosis, as well as regular bouts of malaria, pneumonia, dysentery and sheer exhaustion, all of which began to take their toll. In 1941, while being nursed back to health at a convent in Malawi, she told an attending sister that Our Lady had allowed her three more years of missionary work.
On May 12, 1944, following a series of heart attacks, Edel died in Nairobi where she was buried in a small cemetery reserved for missioners.
Since her death, many miracles have been attributed to her intercession, including her appearance on O’Connell Bridge to dissuade an old friend from suicide and the restoration of sight to a blind baby. Edel’s perseverance in extending the reach of a cause she believed in so resolutely, despite ill-health and prejudice, has inspired many around the world.