Edel Quinn’s life is a reminder that fruitfulness and authentic success often emerge from failure, from giving up one’s hopes and choices to God. Born in Cork in 1907, the daughter of a bank official and his wife, Edel’s early life was subject to constant change. Her education came to an abrupt end when she was 17. Her father, caught embezzling bank funds to feed a gambling habit, was now unemployable, and Edel became the breadwinner. She later wanted to become a Poor Clare, but a diagnosis of TB prevented that. Confined to a sanatorium in 1932, she remained cheerful; she saw that God had a different path for her.
That path was revealed in the Legion of Mary which she joined in 1929, working in a praesidium that reached out to prostitutes. When the legion was considering who to send to east Africa as an envoy, Edel wanted to go. The founder Frank Duff supported her, but given her health, few in the legion thought it wise to appoint her; but Edel won the day. In October 1936 she left for Africa.
For eight years she threw herself into her work, travelling thousands of miles a year promoting the legion and organising lay Africans to participate in the apostolate of the Church. The fact that she was slowly dying of TB did not disturb her; knowing time was short, she wanted to use every moment to serve Our Lady and the Church. Those in Ireland who had opposed her candidacy were taken aback at the extraordinary work she was doing.
By 1944, looking years older than she was, TB, malaria and heart trouble had left her weak. On May 14, 1944, she died in Nairobi at the age of 36.
Edel expressed her aspiration for her life like this: “That we may ‘decrease’ (like the Baptist), let Jesus work His Will in us.” This is a message which defies the wilfulness of our age, when power seems to be the currency of choice for many. Yet the message bore fruit in Edel and, through her, in others. It is a wisdom that raises memorials to life, rather than destroys them; of the last being first and finding strength and fulfilment in surrendering ourselves, our hopes and ambitions, to God.