Sister Lelia was born Mary Elizabeth Cleary in Kildysart, County Clare in 1919. The second of eight children, she grew up on a farm in Clonola. She received her early education in Gortlass National School and later in Bruff Boarding School, County Limerick.
She trained as a nurse in Cork and as a midwife in the Coombe Hospital in Dublin.
She worked as a staff nurse, both in St. Anne’s Hospital in Dublin and in the county hospital in Clare, where she spent eight years. She joined the Medical Missionaries of Mary in 1953.
After profession Lelia worked in Airmount Hospital in Waterford for several months before her assignment to Tanzania (Tanganyika at the time) in 1956. She travelled there on board the ship Dunnoar Castle, during the Suez Canal War. As the ship was entering the canal, travelling south to Tanganyika, the Egyptian forces blocked the canal and the ship had to turn back. It sailed instead by the west coast of Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope before reaching Dar es Salaam on the east coast many weeks later.
She was to spend the next forty-six years in Tanzania. She served as matron in Chala Hospital for five years and then as a staff nurse for three years in Mpanda Dispensary. Lelia spent almost twenty years at Namanyere, again as a staff nurse and then as matron for eight years. These were located in remote areas of the country.
Lelia’s next assignment in Tanzania was in 1984, where she spent four years at Kijungu in the South Maasailand Health Project. In 1990 she moved to Loolera as a nurse and then co-ordinator of a health project among the Maasai people. She was to serve there for thirteen years. The nearest town to Loolera is Arusha. Everything the mission needed came from Arusha, the post, food, medicines and parts of vehicles, taking over eight hours by road.
Sister Lelia learned the language, Kiswahili, very quickly, as well as some of the local languages. She loved to visit people in the nearby villages. She was a good teacher and helped many MMMs to gain experience in midwifery. A quiet woman, she was unflappable in emergencies and kind to everyone.
In 2004, after a few months in Arusha, Sister Lelia returned to Ireland and lived in the Motherhouse community for almost twelve years. Her main work was prayer and she spent long hours in front of the Blessed Sacrament. She read the Irish Times every day and the Irish Catholic every week, to keep up with events all over the world.
She was in good health and participated in activities there until her rather sudden death on 19 October 2015.
Sister Lelia featured on the RTE documentary On this Rock, in 2000, about life in the Loolera community. This documentary and a Sunday Independent report gave an insight into village life and the Maasai people’s story of courage. There had been a lot of drought In Tanzania and a grain store had been built to protect the people from famine. A tractor was hired from Arusha and had been a great help in filling the store, but with the distance to Arusha they couldn’t get one very often.
It gave the local people an idea of what they could achieve if they had a tractor of their own. Before Lelia went on home leave in the early 1990s, one of them asked, ‘Please Sister, see if you can bring us back a tractor.’
She thought there was very little hope of accomplishing what he asked, but she shared the idea with her family and friends in County Clare. They held a number of fundraising events to help buy a tractor for the people of Loolera. There were whist drives and annual charity walks. Advertisements were placed in the local newspaper. The Kildysart Drama Group donated the profits of one night’s show.
A family friend from Kerry contacted the Massey Ferguson Company in England, who then contacted their branch in Tanzania. After hearing the amount of money collected, Massey Ferguson offered to donate the balance for the tractor and a plough. They also offered to transport the new machinery to Loolera, a distance of more than 500 kms.
In January 1996 there was much rejoicing when the tractor and plough arrived in Loolera. A Massey Ferguson representative trained Sister Lelia to drive the Massey 275 and operate the plough. Donations continued for a long time and they were able to buy a trailer. This was a huge benefit because it was used to collect water from several kilometres away.
As a result of further fund-raising by her dear friend in the USA, Fran Laterza, a church was built and named Saint Patrick’s. Prior to this, Mass for the Loolera community was held under a tree.