Womens’ Lib – 1942 Style

Womens’ Lib – 1942 Style

by Sr. Sheila Campbell, MMM               Ireland          08.06.2023

Nowadays we are accustomed to women’s football and rugby teams. They are now being reported on in sports channels as regularly as the men’s games. But it is a relevantly recent phenomenon. The other day I was sent this photo from our Archives Department, and it made me stop and think. This was 1942 and it was an all-women’s operating team in one of our MMM hospitals, probably Drogheda. How common was it to have female doctors in Ireland at the time – almost rare to have female surgeons!

How did this come about? It was the vision and energy of a young Dublin-born woman, Marie Martin. She came from a relatively wealthy family but felt the call to go to Nigeria as a lay woman and missionary. There she saw the plight of women and children and the need for maternity services. She also felt the attraction to religious life, but at the time the Church did not allow women religious to engage in obstetrics or surgery. This began the long period of waiting (and gentle persuasion!) until finally, in 1936, the Church changed it position.

From then onwards, women religious missionaries were not only permitted, but encouraged by the Vatican to establish congregations like the Medical Missionaries of Mary. Mother Mary (as she was later known) wasted no time. The new Congregation would be established in Nigeria. Unfortunately, she took very ill and made her first vows in hospital before boarding a boat to bring her back to Europe. Those who saw her off were sure she would die on the journey home.

But, of course, she didn’t. Even while convalescing back in Ireland, she was busy. She was busy setting up communities in Ireland and Nigeria – a new Novitiate house was opened and blessed in Collon on 12 December 1938. In 1939, the Parish Priest in St. Peters Parish, Drogheda, had acquired a large house. He wished to convert it into a maternity home, and he invited Mother Mary and her newly founded congregation, the Medical Missionaries of Mary, to take over its running. The first patient was admitted 5 January 1940, and the first baby born there on 10 January 1940. Mother Mary was also recruiting new members for the Congregation, training them wherever she could find a place, and fund-raising for the new venture.

Isn’t it amazing that within five short years after nearly dying in a hospital in Nigeria, this all-women team of doctors, nurses and surgeons were sharing their skills? She was, indeed, a “woman on fire with the healing love of God”. As she herself often said, “If God wants the work, God will show the way”.