Mercy sister was top teacher and master linguist

Sister Mary Leonie (Helen O’Neill), RSM, QSM, one of New Zealand’s most distinguished teachers of speech and drama, died in Christchurch on September 12. 

Sister Mary Leonie (Helen O’Neill), RSM, QSM

Aged 90, she was in the 69th year of her religious profession as a Sister of Mercy. 

Born in Cromwell in Central Otago, she trained at teachers’ training college in Christchurch and taught in primary schools.  

Entering the Sisters of Mercy in 1951, she was a secondary school teacher of subjects such as English, French, Latin, Social Studies, as well as speech and drama, until 1973. Thereafter, she reportedly concentrated on speech and drama teaching, examining for Speech New Zealand, then Trinity College London, and adjudicating, until beginning her doctoral studies. 

Having earned a BA in English in 1963, a Masters Degree followed, and her PhD thesis was published in 2006 – when she was in her 70s. The thesis was published as “Once Preferred, Now Peripheral: Poetry and Pedagogy: The Place of Poetry in the Teaching of English for Years 9, 10 and 11 Students”. 

She was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for public service in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2004. 

At a requiem Mass celebrated under adjusted alert level 2 restrictions on September 15 at St Mary’s Procathedral in Christchurch, it was said by Sr Mary Catherwood, RSM, that much of Sr Leonie’s ministry drew on her love of literature, especially poetry. 

She remained faithful to her ministries and activities, and she engaged with people from all walks of life. 

Sr Mary noted that Sr Leonie responded to requests from many parishes for training sessions for readers at liturgies. Sr Leonie wrote and self-published several books on teaching speech for all ages. A manual she wrote reminded these readers that their focus was to be God’s Word. Sr Leonie was also generous in helping schools on many occasions. 

“As her Mercy sisters, we knew her as a warm and engaging woman, an effective communicator, a born actor and a delightful entertainer,” Sr Mary said.  

A note on the Christchurch Catholic cathedral facebook page described Sr Leonie as a “master linguist”. 


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