The Catholic Thing
The Littlest Suffering Souls, part 2: Margaret Leo of McLean Print E-mail
By Austin Ruse   
Friday, 31 May 2013
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How is it that a Supreme Court Justice keeps two pictures drawn by a little girl who died six years ago on the desk of his office? Or that the head of an influential Washington D.C. think tank prayed to the same girl for his father to be saved from a brain tumor? Or, that a noted Washington thinker has a regular devotion to her?

Margaret Leo was painfully crippled from spina bifida, paralyzed from the waist down. Parts of her cerebellum and brain stem were pushed into the opening of her spinal column. A painful shunt in her brain ensured her spinal fluid circulated. Without it, her head would have swelled, causing death. Titanium rods were inserted to straighten her spine, but bent instead. Over time, one of the rods poked out of her neck.

She vomited regularly and had no control over her bladder or bowels. Her painfully sensitive mouth meant she only ever ate soft foods like Spaghetti-O’s.

But there was something that drew the powerful to her who had no power at all. And she drew total strangers, too.

Her special gift was joyful friendship. In an elevator, she would pepper strangers with questions, with a steady gaze and big smile. “What is your name?” “Where are you going?” “What is your birthday?” They sensed she really wanted to know. The girl had no artifice. Even Supreme Court Justices can be attracted to that.

What they did not know, because she never mentioned it, even to her family, was that she was likely in unimaginable pain. Think of a titanium rod being bent by your spine, and about to poke through the skin of your neck. Or a shunt inside your brain.

No one describes her as a “spiritual athlete.” Her faith was profoundly childlike. Her whole life she prayed out loud the simple prayer her mother taught her as a child, “Jesus, thank you for coming to me in the Eucharist.”

She loved priests. At age three, she chased her bishop down the aisle after Mass shouting “Pope. Pope. Pope.” She insisted upon going into the sacristy after Mass to talk to the priests. She knew the saint of each day. For two joyful years, she prepared for Confirmation, which she received only months before her death.

On the morning of July 5, 2007 her father noticed she was having trouble breathing. She said she was fine but he called the ambulance anyway. She died on the way to the hospital – from the failure of the shunt in her head.

The funeral Mass for this 14-year-old was packed to the rafters and stories about her began to circulate. Grown men left deeply moved. Some carry her prayer card to this day.

Then things began to happen. Some call them miracles.

                Margaret Leo

First, Identical Sacred Heart medals began appearing in the most unlikely places – in a San Francisco hotel candy dish, under a dishwasher on vacation, on the cushion of an airline seat.

Next, six weeks after she died, an ambulance raced 80-year-old William Shaunessy (not his real name) to the emergency room. He was having seizures. X-rays showed an enormous growth on his brain. He was in a coma and doctors feared brain cancer. His wife prepared for his death.

Only a few months before, Shaunessy watched his grandson play little league baseball. Leonard Leo, Executive Vice President of the Federalist Society, and one of the most influential conservatives in the nation’s capital, was there, too.

Shaunessy spoke at length to Leonard and Sally Leo’s wheelchair-bound daughter Margaret. The elderly man was struck by her kindness, her rapt attention, and what he later described as her “holiness.” Told of her passing, Shaunessy remarked, “Surely she’s in Heaven.”

When Shaunessy lay near death that August 26, his family prayed to Margaret Leo for her intercession. That happened to be Margaret Leo’s birthday. Within a few days the “huge growth” on the brain was a small patch of dried blood. Doctors offer no explanation.

The third miracle involves her younger brother, Francis, who was conceived shortly after she died. Shockingly, the unborn child was diagnosed with exactly the same malady that struck Margaret, spina bifida, something that rarely, if ever, visits the same family twice.

Sally Leo prayed for Margaret’s intercession for one thing only, that the boy would not need a shunt, the thing that so hurt, bedeviled, and eventually killed Margaret. But he did need one. Within a year, though, the deadly nightmare arrived. The shunt failed and Francis's head swelled dangerously.

Before surgery began, the swelling went down. As a precaution, the doctors left in the malfunctioning shunt in case it ever needed to be replaced. Five years later he still does not need it.

How is it that her photograph sits right now on the desk of Clarence Thomas and that she has moved so many others? Because she carried her immense cross with infectious joy, certainly. But also because she showed genuine interest in everyone she met, the powerful and the stranger.

There is a picture in the Leo home of Margaret speaking with Thomas’s wife Virginia at a Washington event, the kind of event where no one meets anyone else’s eyes, constantly scanning the horizon to buttonhole a more important person.

What you notice in the photo is the central thing about Margaret. Her attention to Mrs. Thomas is utterly rapt. For Margaret there was no one else in the room and this is how she lived her life. This utterly powerless little girl wielded the most powerful thing of all: love. Perhaps Margaret’s greatest gift was seeing Christ in each and every person she ever met. You have to think she sees all those faces right now in the face of Christ.

Margaret Leo of McLean, pray for us.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-FAM.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (15)Add Comment
written by Dan Deeny, May 31, 2013
Fascinating! An inspiring story. Write more articles like this. If you read French, you might like Rue de la Liberté, Dachau 1943-1945 by Edmond Michelet.
written by Deacon Bill Olson, May 31, 2013
Wonderful article.
written by LouAnn Edwards, May 31, 2013
Thank you for this beautiful story! I was wondering where McLean was, and how can we get her prayer cards? Thank you!
written by Austin Ruse, May 31, 2013
McLean is in Northern Virginia. For a prayer card, write to me at
written by Lynda, May 31, 2013
What a beautiful beautiful child, thank you for posting her picture too. I love that the Catholic Church gently and compassionately shows us the purpose of suffering. We are not lost to wonder why we are suffering so terribly but we understand that none of our suffering is wasted when we know Christ. There is so much suffering, so much pain and suffering and injustice in this world, but it is no longer senseless and obscure, but will be our greatest treasure in Heaven.

I read almost daily this one passage from a little booklet "The Way of the Cross with Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos"... it says: "Accept daily all difficulties and crosses with complete resignation and willingly. 'For all things work for the good of those who love God.'... Our consolation consists precisely in that we have traveled the same road that our beloved Savior has chosen for himself, the narrow, the steep way of the cross. Especially, since we know that every single step is written in the book of life, so that these very sufferings will be our greatest treasure."

How beautiful! I pray, with God's help, to be able to do that.
written by Thomas F. Gallagher, June 01, 2013
Has anybody proposed the cause of this extraordinary child for canonization? In the meantime we can pray for Leonard and Sally Leo and Margaret's little brother, Francis. There's a name! Francis!
written by Daniel Imoedemhe, June 01, 2013
I read this story and I could not stop the tears. Jesus' face in every face she saw! I could see Jesus'suffering for me in her suffering and yet 'I am fine,' she said; even under the pain of death. It is not how long one lives but how we carry our cross with faith and love whatever the brevity of life. Sure she rests in Jesus her Lord in eternity. Of the intangible saints are made and with me she is already one. May the Lord grant me the grace to have just a tiny fraction of the faith and love she had. Daniel
written by kristinajohannes, June 01, 2013
Austin, beautiful story. No one describes her as a spiritual athelete? She sure sounds like one to me!
written by Carol Marschel, June 01, 2013
Margaret Leo of McLean pray for the stopping of abortion and also pray for marriage between a man and a woman.
written by Russel Olson, June 01, 2013
As one with a dear family member who suffers from spina bifida, I was greatly moved by the beauty and holiness of this young girl's life. And as the only Catholic member of a family who deeply loves our Lord Jesus but misunderstands His Church, I will be invoking this young saint's intercession in the hope of obtaining the grace of their conversion to the Catholic faith. Saint Margaret Leo, pray for us!
written by kidonhayca, June 02, 2013
"And a little child shall lead them."
written by Jack,CT, June 02, 2013
Simply Beatiful.......
written by Rhonda, June 04, 2013
Thank you for reminding all of us what real love looks like. I remember Margaret very well and she reminded me of Jesus because she always took her time to give to you personally while not ignoring everyone else. She placed you in front of herself always. Thank you again for showing us love in it's truest form.
written by Ebba, June 16, 2013
A shunt in the brain does not hurt, there are no pain receptors inside the brain.
written by Chuck, July 12, 2013
will that little girl ever be a saint? I have spina bifida too, and just wanted to know.

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