Sister Mary Aidan Quinlan, born Elsie Quinlan, but usually known as Sister Aidan, was an Irish-born Roman Catholic nun, medical doctor, and member of the King Williams Town Dominican order in South Africa. She was killed in 1952 during rioting following police killings of black protestors. Her life and death illustrate the possibilities and challenges of Catholic mission work in apartheid South Africa. Moreover, the memorialization of her death has a complex history. For many years her death was memorialized alone. Only more recently has it been put in context with the deaths of hundreds of black people killed by police on the same day, whose deaths were long ignored.
Elsie Quinlan was born in Ballydesmond, Ireland, on 3 December 1914. She and her four siblings were raised in a Roman Catholic household. After taking a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Cork, she decided to join a religious sisterhood. She chose the King Williams Town Dominicans, who were based in South Africa. By the time Quinlan joined, the King Dominicans had expanded beyond their early focus on white German-speaking settlers. By the 1910s, they ran schools and clinics for white, African, and Colored (the South African term for people of mixed racial heritage) communities. The King Dominicans recruited postulants from among all South Africa’s racial groups, but like most Catholic orders, sisters largely lived and worked in segregated communities.
Upon joining the King Dominicans, Quinlan was sent to the University of the Witwatersrand medical school in Johannesburg, where she qualified as a doctor in 1945. Soon after, she made her final vows and took the name Sister Mary Aidan. From then on she was commonly known as Sister Aidan. From 1946-1948 she worked at the Glen Grey mission hospital, which served rural African communities in the Eastern Cape region. Here Sister Aidan became known for her friendly rapport with patients and her skill in obstetrics. In 1949, her superiors transferred her to St. Peter Claver Mission in Duncan Village, East London.
Duncan Village was a segregated location in the middle-sized industrial port city of East London. By 1950 Duncan Village’s population had reached about 60,000 people, but the location had minimal sewage and sanitation infrastructure, one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country, and a high rate of poverty and unemployment. Like other segregated locations in other South African cities, Duncan Village demonstrated the extreme inequality between the black residents who performed the city’s menial labor and the white urbanites who enjoyed its privileges.
The King Dominicans had established a mission in Duncan Village in 1929, which was centered around the Convent of St. Peter Claver where, unusually for the time, white and black sisters worked and lived together. The convent ran a primary school for local children and a clinic. Sister Aidan saw between 160 and 170 patients a day at the clinic. Although Duncan Village had other doctors, herbalists, and healers, Sister Aidan likely saw more patients than any other medical practitioner in the area. One reason for this was that she sold medicines, which she prepared herself, for very little profit. She raised money from friends and family in Ireland to help pay for the medicines. The affordability of her services enhanced her reputation with patients. Another reason for her success was her partnership with Sister Gratia Khumalo, a nurse who assisted in running the clinic. That a black and a white nun worked together in the same mission on terms of equality was somewhat unusual among Catholic religious orders at the time, especially in South Africa where the government was beginning to introduce stricter legal requirements for racial segregation. According to later accounts by Sister Gratia, Sister Aidan was well loved by her many patients. She was particularly respected for her “gift for helping women to conceive and fall pregnant,” according to Sister Gratia.
Sister Aidan died on 9 November, 1952, when her car was stopped by a crowd of people in Duncan Village who stoned the car and set it alight. Her death was part of a riot that spread across the location that afternoon in response to the police shooting of unarmed Africans at a rally earlier that day. The rally had been organized by the African National Congress (ANC) leader Alcott Skei Gwentshe as part of the ANC’s Defiance Campaign. The Defiance Campaign was a nation-wide ANC movement that organized volunteers to perform mass peaceful violations of apartheid laws, with the aim to make the laws unenforceable.
The ANC rally at Bantu Square in Duncan Village on the morning of November 9 began as a prayer meeting. Police commanded the attendees to disperse, but when they refused and threw stones, police opened fire on the meeting, killing an unknown number of people. As word of the shooting spread, Duncan Village residents retaliated by attacking symbols of white authority, including a school, a dairy depot, and the St. Peter Claver mission complex. A group of people stopped Sister Aidan’s car as she drove into the location, setting it alight and killing her. Another group of people killed a white insurance salesman who happened to be in the area. The police continued to pursue suspected rioters through the location throughout that day, shooting and killing an unknown number of Duncan Village residents. Many families secretly buried their loved ones, not taking the bodies to the city morgue for fear of being associated with the riots. The total number of black people killed is therefore unknown, but numerous eyewitness accounts suggest that at around 200 Duncan Village residents were killed by police.
In the aftermath of the violence on November 9, however, it was only Sister Aidan (and to a lesser extent, the insurance salesman, Barend Vorster) whose death was memorialized. White South African newspapers reported her death, and especially the fact that some of her body parts had been taken by her killers to make medicine, as evidence of the “black peril” that threatened white South African society. In that sense, Sister Aidan’s death was used as justification for the continued enforcement of racial segregation that denied equality for black South Africans. For the ANC, the death of Sister Aidan was a blow to the Defiance Campaign in East London, and the organization distanced itself from the killers (who indeed were largely unemployed young people and not ANC affiliates).
For the local Catholic community and the King Dominican congregation, her death was a tragedy but also a martyrdom that proved the spiritual power of the Catholic community in Duncan Village. The King Dominican congregation preserved as a relic the charred bones of her hand, which were found next to her car, still clutching a rosary. While the St. Peter Claver church had been burnt down, the crucifix near the altar was left almost unscathed, which believers interpreted as a sign of encouragement to rebuild the church. Indeed, members of the St. Peter Claver school and congregation immediately began to rebuild the church. According to reports by Sister Ursula Keislich, leader of the St. Peter Claver convent, school children collected and cleaned bricks as part of their daily “hand-work” activities.
For the sisters of the St. Peter Claver convent, however, the death of Sister Aidan was a setback. After Sister Aidan’s death the nuns no longer lived in Duncan Village, but rather commuted every day from another convent in central East London. In 1958, the King Dominicans created a separate order for black nuns, and so the inter-racial partnerships that had existed between black at white nuns at St. Peter Claver were no longer possible. Only a few black nuns returned to reside at the convent at St. Peter Claver between 1956 and 1985. This racial segregation within the order lasted until 1982.
For many years, the hundreds of people killed on the same day at Sister Aidan did not have any public memorial. The police only conducted inquests on the small number of people whose deaths were officially recorded. Therefore, only the names of only 10 of those killed on 9 November 1952 are officially known.
In 2002, on the fiftieth anniversary of the massacre, local historian and politician Mxolisi Qebeyi produced a documentary about the events of “Bloody Sunday,” and organized a public ceremony to cleanse the Duncan Village community of the “dark cloud” that had haunted it since the day of the massacre. This occasion also involved the unveiling of a memorial statue inside the grounds of the St. Peter Claver mission.
On the sixtieth anniversary, in 2012, the Dominican sisters held a second memorial in Sister Aidan’s honor. On this occasion, the miraculously unscathed crucifix from the old St. Peter Claver church was re-erected as part of a large wooden cross outside the church, facing toward the community of Duncan Village.
More recently, the memorialization of Sister Aidan’s death has moved beyond local Catholic community and into broader public memory. In 2016, the East London Museum, under the direction of historian Zuko Blauw, produced an exhibit about the history of the King Dominican community. In 2018 the Dominicans and the local St. Peter Claver church congregation built a community center, the Sister Aidan Multi Purpose Memorial Centre. This community center continues to offer adult education classes, community programs, and a soup kitchen that feeds 250 people five days a week. In 2022, the seventieth anniversary of Sister Aidan Quinlan’s death, the Eastern Cape provincial legislature recognized her among a group of significant historical figures, and a boardroom in the provincial legislature was named after her.
Zuko Blauw and Katie Carline
Breier, Mignonne. 2021. Bloody Sunday: The Nun, the Defiance Campaign and South Africa’s Secret Massacre. Cape Town: Tafelberg.
Bank, Leslie J., and Benedict Carton. 2016. “Forgetting Apartheid: History, Culture, and the Body of a Nun.” Africa 86 (03): 472–503.
Ndlovu, Hlengiwe. 2020. “Bodies That (Do Not) Matter? Black Sunday and Narratives of the Death of Sister Aidan Quinlan in Duncan Village Protest, 1952.” Agenda 34 (1): 48–54.
Zuko Blauw is a historian at the East London Museum in East London, South Africa (elmuseum.za.org). He is also a chairperson of the Sister Aidan Quinlan Trust. Katie Carline is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Michigan State University.