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The last days of Edel Quinn

30 November, 1999

Henry Peel OP recounts the last days of Edel Quinn, a young woman who worked tirelessly as an envoy of the Legion of Mary in East Africa.

Edel Quinn, Envoy of the Legion of Mary to East Africa, died at Nairobi on May 12, 1944. She was thirty-seven years of age. Earlier in her life she had planned to enter a Poor Clare Convent. Instead she was admitted to Newcastle Sanatorium on February 5, 1932 suffering from tuberculosis. She left sometime before Christmas. The drugs which were practically to eliminate what was then a dreaded and frequently fatal illness had not yet been discovered. The most that Edel could hope for was a period of remission from the disease.

Working in Africa
Edel resumed her former way of life devoting most of her spare time to working with the Legion of Mary. It was Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion who suggested to her that she might volunteer to found the Legion of Mary in East Africa and she happily accepted to do so. On October 30, 1936, she sailed for Mombasa from London’s Tilbury Docks. She wrote to Frank Duff from the ship thanking him for the opportunity that he had given her. ‘I only hope,’ she wrote, ‘that I do not fail the Legion when the work comes to be done. I am counting on all the prayers to counteract the danger. Whatever be the consequences, rejoice you had the courage to imitate Our Lord in his choice of weak things in faith.’

After a three weeks voyage Edel settled in Nairobi having been told by Bishop Heffernan that this was the most convenient base for her work. The Loreto Sisters provided her with a bedroom and a sitting room. She began her travels at the beginning of 1937 through Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and Zanzibar which then formed the British Protectorate in East Africa. During a period of three to four years she worked tirelessly at setting up the Legion of Mary, sometimes travelling for weeks or months on end. On medical orders she was admitted to a sanatorium near Johannesburg at the end of May 1941. Eventually in January 1943 she returned by plane to Nairobi.

Back in Nairobi
On her return to Nairobi Edel went to stay at St Teresa’s Convent at Eastleigh where she had stayed before she was given the room which she had previously occupied. To her great joy she was invited to stay for a while within the enclosure of the Irish Carmelite nuns who, at the invitation of the bishop, had come from Hampton Convent in Dublin to make a foundation in Nairobi. Thus, towards the end of her life she could share something of her original desire for a contemplative life. One of the nuns testified ‘whenever you came into her presence whether it was in the infirmary or in the alcove where she used to sit, it was like entering a sanctuary. There was peace all around and you could feel her holiness.’

She was able to resume her work and travelled up to eighty miles for a meeting of a Legion Curia. She wrote to Frank Duff on May 17, 1943 just three weeks after her Carmelite experience: ‘This is a trial run so speak. I am taking things easy otherwise. Because I am making this trip don’t think that I am able for a lot. I am not pretending I am. There is a great deal to be even here in Nairobi.’ From May 18 to June 2 she visited five Missions and attended seventeen Legion meetings.

For the next few months Edel continued to visit Legion meetings in Nairobi and its environs. On December 2, 1942 she wrote to Frank Duff: ‘I shall take it easy for a few weeks around Christmas and try to get my mail off or down. The form keeps good, no fever, sleep like a top. Can’t you pray me more working power?’

Tired all the time
The taking things easy that she was looking forward to was a return visit to the Carmelite Convent where she took up residence two days before Christmas. On St Stephen’s Day she attended the funeral of the legendary Bishop Shanahan. On January 11, 1944, she returned to her room in Eastleigh. She found that she was tired nearly all the time and even simple tasks required a great effort. A nun who met her on her last visit to an outlying mission station said: ‘We could not get her to rest as long as there was work to be done. As members of a religious congregation we felt we had a duty to our congregation of looking after our health, but she hadn’t.’

Edel was now dying on her feet. A priest put her in a car and with a nursing sister drove her to a Franciscan convent with the instruction: ‘Put her to bed and keep her there.’ Two days after Easter Sunday April 9. 1944 Edel returned to her room in Eastleigh. She spent the last month of her life there with afternoon visits to a Summerhouse in the garden a short distance away. When Mass was said in the Church she could hear the priest from her room and join in the prayers. After Mass she received Holy Communion in her room.

There was a regular flow of visitors. Her last surviving letter was written on May 9, 1944 three days before she died. It deals with the affairs of the Legion all over Africa.

Heart attack
About 6.15 p.m. on Friday May 12, Edel was found unconscious on a chair in the Summerhouse. She had suffered a heart attack. The crucifix was held before her eyes while the candles were being lit. The priest arrived and administered the Sacrament of the Sick. She regained consciousness from time to time and said clearly ‘Mother, Mother’, looked at the lighted candles and smiled two or three times. She was carried to her room and laid on the bed. She said ‘Jesus’ once and moved her head. The crucifix was held to her lips and she repeated ‘Jesus, Jesus’. The Legion statue of Our Lady was held by a priest while he recited the prayers for the dying. Edel breathed her last breath calmly and peacefully.

On Sunday May 14, 1944 her remains were laid to rest in the nearby cemetery close to the grave of Bishop Shanahan.


This article first appeared in The St Martin Magazine (May 2001), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.