Nigeria: Missionary Sister Dr Leonie McSweeney has died

  • Matt Moran

Medical Missionaries of Mary (MMM) in Ireland and in Nigeria are mourning the passing of their colleague, Sr Dr Leonie McSweeney, after a short illness. S. Leonie was born in Waterford and educated in Dublin. She joined the Medical Missionaries of Mary in 1951 after working as a secretary. She qualified as a medical doctor in UCD in 1959, and a year later was assigned to Nigeria where she spent the next 58 years of her life. She returned to her congregation's mother house in Drogheda last year.

She served in the MMM hospital in Arua Akpan, then in St Luke's Hospital in Anua and later in Eleta in Ibadan during the cholera epidemic. She then specialised in reproductive health, especially in the Billings Method of family planning. She published several books including "The Facts of Life", "The Truth about Life", and "Sex and Conception".

She also worked in HIV prevention, and became well known for her teaching sessions on television in Nigeria. In 2005, she was honoured as a Member of the Federal Republic.

Sr. Leonie devoted herself to the Pro-Family Life Association of Nigeria for many years. One of her big concerns was overcoming false beliefs, like the idea that intercourse is not possible whilst the mother is breast feeding. When she published a booklet - False Beliefs about Sex and Conception - she said: "Hopefully, discovering the truth about a number of false beliefs will relieve many people of unnecessary fears and anxiety that often lead to unhappiness and even dangerous trouble." Ambassador Magazine, published by her congregation praised the publication stating: "This latest contribution of Dr. McSweeney to promote happy family life will be warmly welcomed by pre-marriage counsellors, youth leaders, catechists and others involved in guiding people at different levels. Their efforts to clarify misunderstandings and false beliefs will be greatly facilitated."

The Medical Missionaries of Mary were founded by Irish woman, Marie Martin, in Nigeria in 1937 to bring the love of God to others through a service of healing. At present there are about 400 members from 19 countries. They work in 14 countries in Africa, Europe and the Americas.

In Nigeria, they are involved in health care at several locations, and run two hospitals - one at Eleta in the city of Ibadan in Oyo State and the other at Mile Four, just outside Abakaliki, in Ebonyi State.

At Itam in Akwa Ibom State, they have a Family Life Centre, where Sister Ann Ward pioneered the treatment of women suffering from vesico-vaginal fistula. This is a residential unit because treatment often requires several surgical interventions.

Elsewhere they are involved in community-based health care, training of traditional birth attendants, and control of diseases such as TB and Hansen's disease (leprosy). As in other countries where they work, a considerable amount of effort is devoted to programmes related to the HIV pandemic.

They have a multi-cultural novitiate at Ibadan. Many professed MMM Sisters from Nigeria are working as missionaries in other countries.

The Medical Missionaries of Mary, along with sisters from another Irish congregation - the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary - played a leading role in the development of health services in Nigeria during the last century. A good account of this is given by Barbara Mann Wall in Changes in Nursing and Mission in Post-Colonial Nigeria - see

(Matt Moran is a writer and author of book - The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On - available from He is based in Cork in the Republic of Ireland).

Tags: Nigeria, Sister Dr Leonie McSweeney, Matt Moran

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