Edel Quinn: Flower of Mary (1907–1944)

Maireed Sherry

I could never refuse Our Blessed Lady anything I thought she wanted.

Early life

Edel Mary Quinn was born in Kanturk, Co. Cork on 14 September 1907, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. She was the eldest of five children born to Charles and Louise Quinn, both natives of the West of Ireland.

The name Edel was given to her by a happy mistake at her baptism. Her mother had intended to name her Adèle after one of her sisters but the priest thought she was to be named Edel as a diminutive of Edelweiss, the small, white Alpine flower which symbolises immortality. Just like the Edelweiss, this “little flower” would grace the world with her elegance and beauty. She would, however, bloom for God alone and He alone would pluck her in His good time for eternity.

Due to her father’s position as an official in the National Bank, the family had to move about quite a bit, finally settling in Monkstown, Co. Dublin. As a child she was carefree, animated and full of mischief. She loved music, dancing, tennis and for a time was captain of her school cricket team. Nevertheless, she was marked by her family and schoolteachers for her generosity, her complete forgetfulness of self, her fearlessness and her prudent judgement. Her father’s pet name for her was “Granny”, so wise and mature was her advice. Edel possessed a great love for the Holy Eucharist from her earliest years and while at school she became a daily communicant. This love was to grow unceasingly until her death. Later on, when she was in Africa, Edel was known to fast for over 15 hours so that as soon as she was able to hear Mass, she would be able to receive Holy Communion.


When Edel was 17, her father’s gambling became a problem and he lost his position in the bank. This resulted in some financial difficulties for the family. The intelligent Edel had to sacrifice the completion of her own education and her desire to enter the Poor Clare Order in order to work as a secretary and help support her younger siblings. Her first employer noticed at once her capabilities as a leader and organiser: “My calling necessitated long absences from my office. I left her in complete charge. On my return … everything awaited me in perfect order!” She soon received a better position at the Chagny Tile Works run by a Frenchman, Pierre Landrin. He too remarked on her continual cheerfulness and attentiveness to duty. When the time came for him to return to France, he realised the depth of his attraction to Edel and proposed marriage. He did not hide his grief when Edel told him that this was impossible as she intended to enter the Poor Clare Convent in Belfast as soon as her siblings had secured their education.

Legion of Mary

It was during her time as a secretary in Dublin that Edel discovered the Legion of Mary, which had been founded there a few years previously by the civil servant, Frank Duff. Based on St. Louis de Monfort’s teaching on True Devotion to Mary, the Legion’s purpose is to support the parish priest in providing spiritual help whenever and wherever needed, especially to the most deprived.

After attending only one meeting, Edel asked to be admitted to the Legion. Years later she would tell a priest that, from the time she was a young girl, she had prayed for three special graces: to love God with her whole heart, to make others love him and to die a martyr’s death. Her prayer was going to be heard, though not in the way she imagined. Edel already possessed a special devotion to our Heavenly Mother and now this devotion was to become her life. All she wanted was to give herself completely to God and, while waiting for the time when she could be free to enter the cloister, she did this by giving herself whole-heartedly to her work as a Legionary. It was said of her that she was the incarnation of the Legion’s Handbook.

The praesidium of which she was a member carried out hospital visitation and home-to-home visits in a slum area. As well as her Legion work Edel would spend five evenings a week visiting lonely old ladies. Her bubbly, sunny character was a real source of joy and comfort. However Edel once wrote to a friend: “I hate visiting. Don’t you?” At this point in her life Edel made a private vow of virginity. Later on, she made a vow to never refuse anything to Our Lady.

After spending two years as an ordinary member of the Legion, Edel was made president of Our Lady of Sorrows Praesidium. Shocked at seeing such a young member being made president, the members sent a protest to the Legion Headquarters but it was completely rejected. This faith in Edel proved justified, as the work carried out by the praesidium increased and was completed with unbelievable success.

Vocation of her choice

At last, when Edel was twenty-four years old, her mother gave permission for her to join the Poor Clares. Her habit was made and it was arranged she would enter on the Feast of the Annunciation 1932, but the hand of God intervened when Edel fell suddenly ill. On investigation, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis at an advanced stage. There was little hope of a cure and, on doctor’s orders, she was sent to a sanitorium for complete rest. Edel had been born under the shadow of the Cross and now it rose before her in all its bitterness. She offered her fiat with Mary’s heart and abandoned herself completely to God’s will: “Circumstances are the sacraments of God’s Will”, she wrote.

After an inactive 18 months at the sanitorium in Co. Wicklow, with no improvement and great expense to the family, Edel decided to discharge herself and return home. The matron of the sanitorium later said that Edel was the nicest girl ever to come there. One would love to have taken her on holiday as she was always cheerful, often laughing until the tears were streaming down her face! She never spoke of her illness and was to everyone a great help and comfort.

On her return home, Edel resumed work and, as soon as she was able, she joined the Praesidium of Our Lady of the Cenacle. Edel was one of those few Catholics who viewed Catholic action not as something optional but rather as a duty of her vocation as a child of God. Taking part as an invalid in the first Legion Pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1934, Edel confided her future to Mary. She longed to give her whole life to God but did not know how best to do so.

Vocation of His choice

The answer came in the form of a request from Legion Headquarters to undertake work promoting the Legion of Mary in Africa. In a flash, Edel saw that this was the vocation to which God called her. She could be a Poor Clare in her heart while her convent would be the roads of Africa. She answered without any hesitation: “With all my heart!”

“Never have I seen a happier person,” reported a witness of the scene. In the highest council of the Legion, the Concilium, there was uproar—Edel, already sickly and frail was being sent to her early death! One priest made a heartfelt appeal for her to reconsider, but Edel was unmoved: “All these difficulties have been explained to me in detail. I know what is before me. It is exactly what I’m looking for… I don’t want to go on any picnic.” At which the exasperated priest replied, “Picnic! Picnic! You’ll make a nice picnic for someone out there!” There were roars of laughter, and then Frank Duff intervened with a further salient observation: “The picnic will not be a substantial one!” which settled the matter amid more laughter. Her sister tells that, when the time came for Edel to leave, she did her packing barely an hour before starting and exactly in the manner of one going on a picnic!

Missionary in East Africa

On 24 October 1936, Edel left Ireland with the commission to establish the Legion of Mary over an area of about three quarters of a million square miles. The crossing lasted about a month and she had to spend most of it in bed. On the advice of Bishop Heffernan, who had sent the appeal, she set up her base in Nairobi. She immediately set to work making contacts with the clergy and the more prominent Catholic laity. The pessimism and discouragement she was met with were almost overwhelming. How could she think that in Africa, of all places, she would be able to bring the diverse tribes and races together, never mind have them commit to such discipline and apostolic labour? Edel’s faith was firm: “When one works for the Blessed Virgin, one need never worry about anything!”

Within three weeks Edel had managed to set up two branches of the Legion. From Nairobi she worked her way from mission to mission setting up literally hundreds of Praesidia in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. She also revisited and assisted the various groups to ensure their growth and maintain their enthusiasm as well as organising the translation and printing of the Legion Handbook into various languages and dialects. Her mode of transport was an old Ford V8 which she nicknamed her “Rolls Royce” and when her chauffeur proved unreliable she learned to drive herself!

What was the result of Edel’s labours? It is necessary only to read this testimony of Bishop Heffernan:

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... One could feel the passing of grace. What she brought us was Catholic Action in all its purity... Her coming among us was a direct and special favour from God for my vicariate.

By September 1940, Edel’s health was declining rapidly and she was practically wasting away. However she refused to give up. She continued her apostolate even in hospital by correspondence, prayer and suffering: “If I cannot work then I can suffer”. Her absolute forgetfulness of self, courage in the face of every obstacle, and the success of her mission can only be attributed to her dependence on Mary. “When the Legion was in question, she literally forgot everything … because she saw it as Mary at work,” wrote one of the missionary priests. She would continue for four more years.


In April 1944, Edel returned to Nairobi after a month of travelling, more dead than alive. For the next month, she suffered greatly from frequent heart attacks until, on 12 May, after receiving the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, she died with the Holy Name of Jesus on her lips.

Edel Quinn’s life shows us that working to spread the Kingdom of God is not something that is reserved to priests and religious. To work for souls, to become a saint, it is not necessary to spend hours in prayer. It is simply necessary to do, always and only, God’s Holy Will.

In her short 37 years, Edel beautifully manifested the meaning of the prayer she had recited countless times:

Confer on us, O Lord, who serve beneath the banner of Mary, that fullness of faith in Thee and trust in her to which it is given to conquer the world...

May her courage and faith “firm and immovable as a rock” inspire us to work without reserve in the service of God and His Holy Church.

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