The Littlest Suffering Souls, part 2: Margaret Leo of McLean

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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 Center for Family & Human Rights (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.