Sr. Leonie was born Patricia McSweeney in County Waterford in 1932. She grew up in Dublin, together with her brother Bill, and attended her early education with the Holy Faith Sisters, whom she loved. She worked as a secretary in a factory for two years before joining MMM in 1951. She felt a call to religious life but was more attracted to nursing than to teaching. When she was interviewed by Mother Mary, Mother accepted her immediately and told her that she would like her to study to be a doctor.
Leonie studied at University College Dublin and qualified in 1960. Soon afterwards she was assigned to Nigeria, where she served for almost sixty years. She worked first for eight years in Urua Akpan, followed by eighteen months in Anua. In 1970, she moved to Eleta, Ibadan, where she served for about three years. These were all busy MMM hospitals where the needs were endless and where Leonie thrived as a young, enthusiastic and excellent doctor.
In Ibadan in the early 1970’s, there was a cholera epidemic that lasted many weeks. Eventually only patients affected with cholera were admitted St. Mary’s, Eleta. People with other conditions were sent to other hospitals. As medical officer Leonie played a key role in dealing with the epidemic, together with Dr. Joe Sheehan. The MMM community in Eleta supplied food and other necessities for the volunteers who came to help. From every walk of life, staff and volunteers worked day and night treating the patients while measures to control the disease were put in place. Of the approximately 4,300 patients who were treated, only 33 died.
Not long after, Leonie was involved in a serious road traffic accident. Happily, she survived but she was not able to continue coping with a great workload. In 1974 she moved to our MMM hospital in Ondo. While there she heard about the Billings Ovulation Method for family planning, developed by John and Evelyn Billings in Australia. Leonie realised its potential for helping couples and enriching their lives together. The foundation for Love and Life Family Planning and the Pro-Life Association of Nigeria (PLAN) was thus laid in Ondo.
She began training instructors, who in their turn trained groups. Eventually there were instructors training couples in every diocese in Nigeria. She eventually became engaged full time in researching and promoting the method, travelling throughout Nigeria and producing a number of publications. She was invited to Ghana, Kenya, Egypt and Cameroon to share her findings. Leonie was also involved in HIV prevention and behaviour change.
In 1997, Sister Leonie moved back to Ibadan, where she continued her work. In 2005 she was made a Member of the Federal Republic of Nigeria by the government of Nigeria. In 2011 she was awarded Nigerian citizenship. She received many other national and international awards.
Sr. Leonie began to suffer from poor health and had treatment in Ireland at the end of 2017. She returned to Nigeria to hand over her work and was pleased that a Nigerian MMM was appointed to continue the ministry. She was assigned to the Motherhouse in 2018 but her health continued to deteriorate. After hospitalisation and surgery she moved to Áras Mhuire later that year, accepting her illness with joy. She died there peacefully on 4 May 2019, surrounded by her brother Bill, her sister-in-law Mary, and other MMMs.
Leonie was a happy woman and a compassionate MMM, taking delight in everything around her, seeing the good in each one and marvelling at the interventions of God in the human condition. When she returned to Ireland she was a cheerful presence in the Motherhouse and enjoyed re-connecting with her family and life in the country.
Nine Priests concelebrated Leonie’s funeral Mass. Father Dermot Connolly, SPS, was the main celebrant. He was joined by St. Patrick’s Fathers Billy Fulton, Leo Flynn, Ciaran Flynn, Tommy Greenan, Brian Byrne, Joe Long and Joe Rabbitte, as well as Father Eddie Deeney, SMA. Sisters from many religious congregations attended, including Sr. Elizabeth Mooney, of the Holy Child Sisters. She was in primary school in Dublin with Leonie and they remained friends. At the request of Lumen Christi, the national Catholic TV station of Nigeria, the Mass was streamed to Lagos so her many friends there were able to participate.
We miss Leonie’s presence but are happy that she is now at peace and is united with God, whom she served so joyfully.