The Full Catastrophe: Remembering Tracey Leonard

I never met Tracey Leonard. I’ve heard a lot about her, much of it from her brother Richard, who is an Australian Jesuit priest and friend. But I met her story long before I met Richard.

The summarised version is: Tracey volunteered as a nurse in Calcutta, in Mother Teresa’s house for the dying in the 1980s. She returned to Australia and went to Wadeye, an aboriginal community known as Port Keats, and while driving back to the community, the car flipped, and she was rendered a quadriplegic, and cared for by her mother, Joan, for the next 27 years. She died on Saturday March 18.

The first copy of The Full Catastrophe that I owned was given to me by the mother of a friend. My friend’s mother is a nurse, and had worked with Tracey in Queensland in her early career. My friend’s mother knew I had a thing for overseas missions.

My passion for one day volunteering overseas was an idea that firmly lodged itself in my mind while spooning peas into my mouth guiltily as my family shared a roast dinner while the Ethiopian famine unfolded on our TV screen. The passion has been refined, but it has never left.

So I first read The Full Catastrophe at age 21, and drank it in. The stories of Calcutta, Tracey’s bold challenges to Mother Teresa, her drinking adventures and pleas to “send Vegemite” (and tampons) resonated deeply with me. I read the book just a month before I was to move away from home to Melbourne for the first time to work for the Jesuits. I had no idea of the connection, that her brother was in fact, one of these men.

Before I began the long pilgrimage down the Hume to Melbourne, I had volunteered to help out on a youth group weekend, where myself and three friends had our cars broken into and the contents of our little bombs stolen. In my handbag was a copy of The Full Catastrophe, a Bible and my wallet. I joked to my friends that hopefully the thief would be evangelised by either Tracey or the Bible. Either would work fine.

I came to meet Richard, and heard him speak a number of times. He came one day to tell his own and Tracey’s story to myself and a group of women and moved some to tears. He writes about the experience of his family, particularly that of his mother Joan, in his book Where the Hell is God?

It was around this time that I got Tracey’s email and ordered the book again, directly from her, and read it again. I must have lent it to someone, because after reading it for the second time, that copy also went AWOL.

The third copy was found at a Lifeline bookfair,
my little piece of heaven on earth.


My friend Emily was working in Wadeye, the community where Tracey had been working when her accident occured. I told Emily that the book would change her life, and posted her my copy. She was so moved that she got in touch with Tracey on Facebook, and arranged for Richard to come and speak to staff and students.

I found another copy, probably at a Church book sale, or another bookfair. I’m known to frequent both. This copy went to Kirby, my friend who was working in Katherine. Again, she was touched.

This weekend, upon learning of Tracey’s death on Facebook from Emily and then Richard, I mentioned the sad news to my friend Gen. I had given her the cliffnote version of the story, in fact, it was just a few weeks ago at the Lifeline bookfair that I had peer-pressured Gen into buying The Full Catastrophe. Yesterday afternoon, Gen read the book in one sitting. Her response was strong: “What a woman. May she rest in peace.”

Richard’s message on Facebook read “If she isn’t in heaven, there’s no hope for any of us.”

Servant of God Dorothy Day famously used to say to people, “don’t call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

I suspect, from what I know of Tracey, that she would resonate with this.

But – in her own, non-pious, beautiful prose, made up not of platitudes but of thinking, living, breathing, and storytelling in a real and wildly funny way – I hope she is up there interceding for us.

You Might Also Like...

1 Comment

  • Reply
    July 24, 2017 at 5:38 pm

    I didn’t know Tracey had died. 🙁 I am just finishing TFC at the moment!
    Beautiful soul.

Leave a Reply