Quinn, Edel (1907–44), missionary and Legion of Mary envoy to Africa, was born 14 September 1907 in the parish of Castlemagner near Kanturk, Co. Cork. Her father, Charles Quinn (b. 12 November 1871 in Tuam, Co. Galway), joined the National Bank and was posted to Kanturk, where he met his future wife, Louise Burke Browne, youngest daughter of a prosperous farmer in Kilmihil, Co. Clare. They had five children, Edel (b. 1907), Leslie (b. 1909), Ralph (b. 1911), Mona (b. 1914), and Dorothy (known as ‘John’; b. 1915).
The family moved each time Charles Quinn was promoted in his bank: to Clonmel, Co. Tipperary (1908); Cahir, Co. Tipperary (1913); Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford (1917); and Tralee, Co. Kerry (1921). In the various moves Edel Quinn's teachers considered her an intelligent, spirited child. In Tralee, where Charles Quinn was appointed bank manager in 1921, his family lived in the bank premises in Denny St., undisturbed by the war of independence and the civil war. Edel Quinn, on reaching her sixteenth birthday, was sent to a convent finishing school managed by the Institute of the Faithful Companions of Jesus in Upton Hall, Cheshire, north-west England. There she sat her Cambridge school certificate examination. She became a committed member of the Child of Mary Sodality. Her parents recalled her to Tralee in July 1923, when she learned of her father's demotion to the rank of clerk because of his gambling debts. He was tranferred to head office in Dublin, and his family moved to 22 Trafalgar Terrace, Monkstown, Co. Dublin.
Quinn immediately trained as a secretary in Rosse College, St Stephen's Green, where she qualified for a position as secretary to Chagny Tile Works in Nassau St. (1924). For some years she was the main support of the family; she also personally arranged for her siblings’ schooling. A keen athlete, Quinn entered fully into the social life of tennis events, dances, and theatre while running a girls’ club in the inner city. A young Frenchman, Pierre Landarin, the manager of her office, accompanied her to social functions and visited her home. When he proposed marriage (September 1927), Quinn disclosed her central role in the family fortunes. She also informed him of her intention to enter a contemplative religious order of nuns, the Poor Clare monastery in Belfast, as soon as she was free of family responsibility. Though they continued to correspond when Landrin moved to England, Quinn remained resolute concerning her future plans. Landrin preserved her letters and made them available to her biographers.
Quinn joined the Legion of Mary in 1929. Founded by Frank Duff (qv) in 1921, the catholic lay association's distinguishing characteristics were the fostering of the devotional and theological life of the lay catholic through familiarity with the cult of Mary, Mediatrix of Graces in the writings of St Louis Marie de Montfort, and the opportunity for an inclusive spiritual ministry to the needy. Quinn added to its weekly meetings a rigorous regime of prayers, early rising, and fasting. By 1931 she was in charge of a group (praesidium) that attended to the spiritual needs of Dublin prostitutes. Her success brought her to the attention of Frank Duff, who noted her exceptional gifts of leadership and management.
Her austerities undermined her health. Only when she haemorrhaged and consulted her doctor was the diagnosis of tuberculosis confirmed. She was referred to the Newcastle sanatorium, where she remained from 5 February 1932 till shortly before Christmas 1932. Though one lung was not healed, she considered herself healthy, and for the remainder of her life she took precautions to separate her living quarters and her human contact from others lest she infect them. The charge of being a health hazard was to pursue her to Africa.
Thereafter her life assumed a quickened pace. In mid 1933 she joined the staff of Callows Motor Works in Westland Row, Dublin, working in a small dusty office. She resumed her Legion of Mary activities, taking a less demanding ministry with hospital nurses in Temple Hill Children's Hospital. She prevailed on her family to move to 42 Monkstown Road, where she had more privacy. Though she relinquished the idea of religious life, she maintained a disciplined life of prayer.
The Legion of Mary was expanding rapidly throughout the world. Frank Duff's concept of extension work to England, a system of short-term volunteering carried out during a legionary's holiday periods, was warmly received by catholic bishops and parochial clergy. The ‘Legion envoy’ concept went a step further; it offered to a bishop of a diocese a lay missioner who was prepared to develop a strategy of evangelisation with his approval. It proved attractive in missionary countries where the clergy were scattered over a wide region. Duff selected Quinn first for the extension work in Wales, where her approach won approval. On her return to Dublin, she signalled to Duff that she was free to move to Wales on Legion of Mary work. Duff responded by offering her the position of envoy to Africa: first to South Africa, then to East Africa, where Bishop Heffernan was vicar apostolic. She accepted and despite opposition in Concilium, the decision-making body, on grounds of health and gender, Duff and Quinn succeeded in winning unanimous approval for her appointment as Legion envoy to East Africa. On 30 October 1936 she boarded the Llangibby Castle at Tilbury docks, London, arriving in Mombasa on 23 November.
Her last phase, less than eight years, was a brilliant climax to her life. The logbook of her journeys was published in the first numbers of Maria Legionis, and her factual reports made her work known in Vatican circles. She proved herself a trainer of leaders, a tactful link between priests and people. In the Legion of Mary archives in Dublin are outlines of her formidable, efficient timetable. She worked among the African peoples in Kenya, Tanganyika (Tanzania), Uganda, and Nyasaland (Malawi), travelling vast distances by local transport. She established the official headquarters of her envoyship in Nairobi, conscious that the catholic missionary movement in East Africa was a developing one.
Invited to Mauritius in 1939, she braved the hazards of war in the Indian Ocean, arriving back in Durban, South Africa, in early 1940. On reaching her next destination, the vicariate of Nyasa, she was in a state of near exhaustion but she carried out her assignments before allowing herself to rest at the Likuni mission. In April 1941 her tubercular condition forced her to agree to enter a sanatorium at Springkell, near Johannesburg, where she remained six months before moving to Umlamli hospital in the Cape province on 14 November 1941. She was well enough to return to Nairobi at the beginning of 1943, and though her movements were restricted, she directed her missionary activities through a flow of letters and meetings in the Eastleigh compound of the Sisters of the Precious Blood. She died from a heart attack on 12 May 1944 in the thirty-seventh year of her life. Her first biographer, Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens, considered her a heroine of the twentieth-century catholic lay-apostolic movement. Recognised officially by the Roman process for beatification, on 15 December 1998 she was pronounced Venerable, the first step in the process to sainthood. Letters and records of Quinn's activities are in the Legion of Mary archives, Concilium Office, Dublin. Sworn testimonies of 258 contemporary witnesses of Quinn's life are assembled in Summarium, super dubio, ad ejus causa introducenda sit (Rome, 1982).