Mother Mary's Story

Marie Martin: Foundress of the Medical Missionaries of Mary

Marie Martin was a pioneer in health services, in women’s development and education, and in women’s religious life. In a public address she gave in Boston in 1952, she expressed concern about telling the story of how MMM began because, she said, “It is a very simple one, so simple that I really feel it may not interest you.”

The story was far from simple. She encountered many difficulties on the long road to founding the Medical Missionaries of Mary. Her vision was clear: dedicated women were needed, women who would bring health care to places where there was none, and would give particular care to women and children. She wanted the group to be international from the beginning.

This frail woman was a person of faith and courage, with a deep love of God and other people. She welcomed diversity and saw the need for MMMs to have freedom to make decisions, to be courageous, and to be professional in their work. This required a deep spirituality.  At the time, for her and for others who shared her ideas, it was radical thinking.  

Marie Martin was deeply human and often felt confusion when the way was not clear and frustration when she was misunderstood. Above all she wanted to discover and follow God’s will in her life. It was an improbable story. When you read about that story you will realize just how improbable it was.

In the following account, Mother Mary’s own words are noted in blue.

Phase One: Backdrop

Who was this woman who inspired women from all over the world to bring hope and the healing love of God to millions?  Born in Ireland in 1892, the second eldest of twelve children, Marie loved her home and family. She enjoyed the social whirl.

As in every family there were difficult moments. After a drive home during a snowstorm when she was twelve, Marie contracted rheumatic fever. When she was fifteen, her father, a wealthy merchant, was killed in a shooting accident.

“I was once a young girl and I lived at home, in a very happy home. I was one of twelve children and happened to be the eldest girl, with eight brothers, so you can imagine the number of times my hair was pulled. But we enjoyed life and we were all very happy together. I went to school, but only when I was fourteen years of age, as I had been very delicate and had rheumatic fever and therefore was not allowed to do any much schooling. And even when I went to school I was most of the time being cured of my rheumatism, in a place called Harrowgate with the Holy Child Jesus nuns. When I came home, what was I going to do with my life?

“I was very fond of nursing the sick and the poor, so when I had all my home duties done and being at home with my brothers at night, Mother used to allow me to go out and visit the sick and poor, but our first duty was our home, for she always said to us, “Now girls, if you at home you will also have the brothers. If not, you will find they will be going to clubs, etc.” So we all dined together every night and about half past ten or eleven, when I felt I had done my part, I used to go out then and visit all the poor people of the parish, settle them down for the night, the cancer cases, the tuberculosis cases, those who were suffering, preparing for death. As I’d go I just wondered what I should do with my life and I prayed and asked God to show me His will.”

This was a passionate woman who fell in love and thought seriously of marriage.

“I was very fond of life. I enjoyed everything: tennis parties, dances, and so on, just like every normal girl. I thought the marriage vocation was a wonderful one. I only thought of my mother, she, the mother of twelve children, twelve souls for God. Oh, what a vocation! Could I be that? And I had determined that if it was God’s will that I would get married and be like Mother.”

Marie Martin was a woman who had a profound relationship with God. A turning point in her life came one day during a visit to the local church.

“Each day before I went into town I used to call in and pay a visit to the Friend of friends and tell Him of all my ideas. This day I was going in, and strange to say, I was thinking more seriously about the matter and I just fell to the foot of the altar and I told Our Lord about my anxiety and my ideas for the future, asking Him to let me know what He would wish and like a flash I saw that if I became a religious, and especially a missionary, I would be the mother of millions and millions of souls. I made up my mind then and there that with God’s help that I would go and offer myself somewhere to do mission work and to be the mother of souls and if He was good enough to call me to be His spouse.

“I left the chapel. I went into town and I met my friend, and as you know I had my mind made up by then: marriage was out of the question.”

Years after founding the Medical Missionaries of Mary, Marie said of Gerald, “He was the person I most loved in all the world.”

Phase Two: War

World War I began while Marie was still trying to decide what to do next. She saw an opportunity to do good and break away from home so she started Red Cross nurse training. Soon after, fighting started in the Turkish peninsula of Gallipoli and two of her brothers, Tommy and Charlie, were deployed there.

“’Now, what to do?’ That was the question I kept asking myself. I loved home and I knew I was going to find the sacrifice of parting with Mother a great, great sacrifice. So I kept praying and then the Great War came, and I thought, well, now here is an opportunity of going out to do good and at the same time to break away from home. And that by breaking away from those we love, that I would more clearly see the will of our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ. So I volunteered and not knowing much about nursing I thought it would be a good plan to be trained first. So I got entrance into one of the large hospitals in Dublin to start my training. I was only there a year when I was called. Gallipoli had started. My brothers had gone there and ... much help was needed. So all those who entered as Red Cross nurses in this hospital were asked to volunteer for Gallipoli. We were all ready. We went out.”

She sailed for Malta in October 1915 and was posted to a military hospital, where soldiers wounded at Gallipoli were brought. While there, Marie learned that her brothers were wounded and that Charlie was missing in action.

In 1916, Marie was sent to nurse in France and cared for soldiers suffering from gas poisoning and terrible mental wounds. She could hear the roar from the front line throughout the terrible Battle of the Somme. One evening she got the news that Charlie had died. Grief-stricken herself, in a letter home she tried to comfort her mother.

She wrote, “It is really impossible to realize that we shall never see his dear face again.” Marie Martin was a woman who experienced the horrors and carnage of war.

“When Gallipoli was finished, then we were sent to France. From there I came home once again to my happy home. One of my brothers had been killed and the other seriously wounded. But I got the welcome from Mother. She was so glad to have me back. But during that time in France I saw what one can do nursing, as a nurse. I just thought, what a wonderful thing it would be if we could have a group of women dedicated to God, heart and soul, with only one thought, to love Him and to love souls, and through that to give them the comfort of the Catholic Church. How this was to be done I’d no idea but that stuck in my mind so I prayed and waited.”

Phase Three: Lay missionary

Marie was a courageous woman who expected the same of all MMMs. She was also very persistent. One day a priest, Father Thomas Ronayne, asked her if she had ever thought of doing some work for God. The priest asked if she would think of helping a Bishop Shanahan, home from Nigeria, who was looking for religious women for his area.
“I continued on nursing among the poor in our own parish and one day went to confession to a priest whom I knew very well and he said to me, ‘Have you ever thought of giving yourself to God and doing some work for Him?’

“So I said, ‘Yes, Father, I have been thinking but I wonder am I worthy of such a call and I don’t know where to go or how to begin. I’m not very much attracted to any of the Orders I know.’

“And the priest said, ‘What about the missions? There is a bishop over here now from Nigeria. He has been all around Ireland looking for religious, anyone to go out and to take the place of the Sisters of Cluny who had been in his vicariate, but had to leave as they had not enough Sisters. He wants religious. He can’t get them. Would you think of going out and helping him?’ And he gave me his address and I thought I’d go down and see him.”

“I went home. I didn’t say much about it then to Mother. I went down to see Bishop Shanahan and he told me his story.”

The bishop told her that where he was in Africa there was no one to care for women and babies at birth or care for the sick. She offered to help, saying she had very little to give, but she loved God and people.

“So to get rid of me, he said, “That’s a very big thing.” He said, “Go off. Come back again in a week’s time and then I’ll give you my answer.”

“So I went away and I prayed as I never prayed before, that if it was God’s will that I would get out to Africa and help the people out there until such a time as he was able to get a religious Order. I came back sharp to the clock of eleven o’clock on that Tuesday morning. The bishop opened the door himself.

“Oh,” he said, “I’ve been praying I wouldn’t see you again. I don’t know how I could ever do what you want.”

The bishop did not encourage her but Marie said she was not afraid to go alone. If she trained in midwifery, she could be ready in six months. He said he would discuss it with his council in Africa and Marie should do her training.

“He went to Africa. I went to the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin, delighted to be starting some real work which would help to bring to, I hope, pagan countries the great gift we have in Ireland of the Christian family. The home is, as you all know, the basis of all Christianity. Where the home is Christian, all else will flow from that.

“So I went in and there I was doing my training, and while I was there, there was another lady who was doing her medicine [Agnes Ryan, a medical student]. She heard of my intentions and she, too, thought she might like to come. So we waited for the bishop to send me an answer and one day I got a cable: ‘Urgently needed if you do not mind coming alone.’

“Well, I didn’t feel my vocation depended on anyone but God, so naturally I didn’t mind going alone, but in the meantime to make things easier for the bishop, this girl had also volunteered to come with me. So I cabled back that I was ready to go alone, but if he could accept a companion I thought I had one that would come with me. We finished our course. We sailed off to Africa and when we arrived at Calabar, there we were met by the priest who had originally advised me to meet Bishop Shanahan.”

Marie Martin was a woman undaunted by obstacles. Marie and Agnes finished their courses and sailed to Africa in 1921. When they arrived in Nigeria, they were told they were not being asked to do medical work but to run a school and to teach catechism.

“He said, ‘I have bad news because I’m afraid you’re not going to be asked to do medical work. The bishop wants you to take on a school of four hundred children, girls, and five hundred women for catechism.’

“I looked at him. ‘Father, you know I couldn’t teach. I’ve no qualifications for teaching.’ And I looked to my friend and I knew she was a B.A., an M.A, with all the qualifications that this world can give, but she was a bit disappointed. I said to her, ‘After all, the world wasn’t redeemed though great works. Whatever obedience asks, let us do.’ And this was our ticket off the boat. Once the priest heard that we were ready to do what the bishop wanted he was very willing to take us off and to bring us up to the bishop and handed over the Saint Joseph’s School in Calabar Province.”

Though disappointed, Marie taught catechism while Agnes managed the school. After a few months Agnes became ill and went home. Marie now worked with the people of Calabar as best she could and the people looked after her.

“There we worked together for a very short time. I, not being an educationalist, took charge of the convent, of the catechumens, and of the house girls, while she took all the work of the schools. We were only working a very short time together when she got ill, and so ill that after two months, the doctor advised she went home. So I was left alone with my Africans and there we worked together...

“We had five hundred women at night to teach catechism to, and they, too, were all beginning to lose their fervour and their ideals, but I worked among them as best I could. I travelled right through the country of Nigeria, through the bush. Many a time living in a little house with no windows or no doors, the wild animals all around, and my only companions were five African girls. But how they looked after me! ... They lit a fire and one watched at night to see that nothing would happen ... These are the people that I saw and longed to have some Congregation, some group of women, who would love them and who would sacrifice their very lives to give them the gift that we ourselves have. How it was to be done, I did not know.”

In Nigeria Marie met people in great need of health care, especially for women in childbirth and for children. She knew one of the obstacles at that time was the Church’s ban on women religious practicing surgery or obstetrics. She stayed for three and a half years. During that time she met Bishop Shanahan and his council to discuss founding a missionary congregation for women in Nigeria. Marie was to be the foundress.

“In God’s providence, after three years a Sister of Charity [Sister Mary Charles Walker] came out to relieve me, because the bishop in the meantime had been to Rome and told them of my idea of having a congregation specially dedicated to Our Lady for the care of the mother and the child. And the advice he got was that I remain in Africa and did my novitiate there, she to be my novice mistress. She also had to take over all the work of that parish.”

It now seemed that Marie’s dream was being realized and she began her religious training in Nigeria. She was about to receive her habit when a telegram arrived.

“I entered my novitiate and I was just about to receive my habit when a cable came from Ireland.  First of all [when] I saw this cable, my first thought was my mother, that she was dead. So I went into the Blessed Sacrament and before opening it I said, ‘Dear Lord, give me the grace to accept this as you would.’ And then with courage I opened the cable and before reading it I looked down to see who it was from. I saw it was the bishop so I read with a heart free. And this was from him, saying, ‘Come home and join the novitiate’, which was being organized or started by the Dominican nuns. I looked at the tabernacle and there I immediately remembered the life and the words of Our Lord: ‘I came on this earth to do the will of my Father who is in heaven.’

“Come home.” Bishop Shanahan had changed his mind, deciding to begin the new society in Ireland. Dominican Sisters in Dublin would now be responsible for the foundation. Marie later described this as the hardest obedience in her life. She was a woman of tremendous faith. Now she was sustained by remembering the words of Jesus.

“I therefore, before leaving the chapel, promised Our Divine Lord I would go home by the next boat. ‘Twas lucky I did, for when I went out and I told Mother [Sister Mary Charles] of my decision and of the cable, she was naturally very distressed because she was going to be left alone in the country with all the work to do. After a short time she saw I was right, but then when I met the priests, they said, ‘Oh, if you go home there will never be a congregation of medical missionaries.’

“I said, ‘Father, obedience will never stop any work. If God wishes this, nothing will stop it.’ Therefore I prepared myself and I went home by the next boat.”

Phase Four: A Failure?

Marie Martin was a woman of great integrity. She was persuaded to complete her religious training in the Holy Rosary Congregation in Ireland but did not feel she could take her vows at the end.  She had always wanted to do medical work and did not believe that she would be doing God’s will in a teaching congregation. From the start she felt she was in the wrong place and left in 1926.

“When I arrived home I was naturally very tired and worn out over three and a half years in Africa. I had taken my vows, private vows to His Lordship, Bishop Shanahan. All that this world had given me, as His vicar, I had given to him, for God. I’d given my obedience. I went to my director and told him of what had happened and he said, ‘The first thing you must do now is to ask to be released of your private vows, for your whole situation has changed.’

Marie went to Bishop Shanahan and told him that she did not feel she would be doing God’s will by entering a teaching congregation. She had always had the idea of doing medical work on the missions and felt that was God’s will for her. He begged her to give it a try. Marie agreed, saying that she would do anything for the missions, but only under one condition: that she enter the new congregation as any postulant or novice would, with the same freedom and that if she didn’t feel it was God’s will she could leave. The bishop consented.

Marie continued, With that I was released of my private vows and I went to see the Mother Prioress of the convent, who were going to start this new work. I humbly asked for admission and the first thing she said [was], ‘Remember, Miss Martin, if you enter this Order, you’ve got absolutely nothing to do with the founding of it. This has now been given into our hands by Bishop Shanahan and you just enter as a novice or postulant in any other congregation.’

“I said, “Mother, I’m very grateful to hear those words because I feel this is the only way I could enter, because ... I do not feel that it is God’s will for me, but the bishop has asked me to give it a trial and I am only willing to do so.’

Marie entered the congregation at Killeshandra and did her postulancy. For a long time she felt she was in the wrong place, but her director told her to continue. She finished her spiritual year and felt the same way, but again her director told her to continue. She complied but said, “I finished my second year but I could not take my vows for I did not feel I was doing the will of God.”

Marie later saw God’s providence working because she had completed her novitiate but at this point she again felt uncertain and confused. With so many obstacles in the way of starting a women’s medical missionary group, she decided to devote her life to prayer.

“I therefore left and found myself in the same position, not knowing what to do. We could not be religious at that time and undertake the works that were nearest to my heart and that was the care of the mother and child at childbirth. So I thought the best thing to do was to enter Carmel.”

She applied to the Carmelites, who told her that she had to get all the votes of the religious in the house and to come back for their answer. When she returned on Easter Tuesday she met the prioress, who told her she had all the votes. Marie was thankful that she could now give her life in prayer and sacrifice that someday God will find someone to start a congregation for the care of the mother and child in mission countries.

The prioress said, “While you have the votes I’m afraid I can’t accept you. After Mass this morning I got a very strong inspiration that I should advise you not to enter here, but to persevere in trying to find an order that would do the work that you see and believe so necessary for the Catholic missions.”

Many people would have given up but Marie was undeterred. In Scotland she met a priest, Father Agius, SJ, who said he was founding a medical missionary Order.

Marie said, “I was disappointed. I went back to my director and told him ... that during the time that I’d been waiting for my answer from Carmel  I’d been over to Scotland, where I‘d heard of them founding an Order which seemed very like that I was dreaming about. I met the director, who was a Jesuit. He told me all about the work, that they were going to have vows, that they were going to do all branches of medical work, and that they were going on the missions.

Her director advised her to go back for a year. If she believed that it would fulfil the work necessary for the missions she should remain. If not, she should come home.

Marie helped out at a hostel that Father Agius had started. The work was very hard and there was no religious training. She begged the priest to leave the work, or to get others to do it for a year or two, until the women who wanted to join had religious training. He did not agree so the women left, often leaving Marie practically alone. She returned to Ireland in 1929, her health broken down, and for the next five years she was an invalid.

Marie said, “I was broken down in mind and body and heart. I didn’t know what to do or what to think and all I could do was suffer with Our Divine Lord and ask Him to show me clearly what he wanted. During that time ... I began to think and pray and formulate, and yet my director said it could never be that a religious with vows could do maternity work. So I put it out of my head and I just thought I was a failure and that nothing could be done but to live at home, where I got strong. At that time the doctors thought I would never be able for any active work again. However, God has His own ways of doing things.”

Phase Five: Preparations

It must have seemed to Marie that she was constantly finding dead ends. Nevertheless, Father Hugh Kelly, her spiritual guide, encouraged her to draw up more definite plans about the society.

“At the end of my five years-long illness I went again to hospital for an operation, after which they thought there was little hope of my living. During that time my director came in and released my mind greatly by saying I could once more begin to think and pray as regards the work of the missions. From that day, in an extraordinary way, I became stronger. I began to sleep and in a short time I was well enough to leave the hospital. But then I found myself again, with the one great difficulty: the Holy Father had not spoken on religious being allowed to do maternity work and have vows.”

Marie thought about going to Rome, but in 1933 she was able to tell the Pope’s representative in Ireland, Archbishop Paschal Robinson, about her ideas. He said these were an inspiration from God, but not to do anything until the Holy Father spoke. She was disappointed because she had gathered a group of women who were interested to join her “with the one idea.”

“I didn’t know him and I didn’t know how I would get to know him and then I heard that my own doctor happened to be his doctor. So I asked him would he give me an introduction. He met me most graciously. I showed him a little sketch I had written in Africa in 1921.

“He said to me, ‘Miss Martin, that is an inspiration from God, but don’t take one step to become a religious until the Holy Father speaks.’ To cheer me up, he said, ‘That may be either in ten years or a hundred years hence but God will accept your desire to do the work. Don’t even take a house or live together.’

“Monsignor Riberi happened to be His Excellency’s secretary. His Excellency told him of my visit and what my request was. Monsignor Riberi did not quite understand what exactly I needed or what I wanted to do, because he had not been on the missions, but His Excellency Paschal Robinson knew very well and said it was really a work that was very necessary.”

Marie Martin was a woman of discretion. She said, “I came away with his blessing and I knew that God at this moment wanted me to do nothing but to remain unknown and hidden.”

This must have been very difficult but Marie was also astute. She decided to get more spiritual formation. She was very interested in the Benedictine spirit, with its balance of work and prayer; approach to the liturgy; and emphasis on hospitality. She wanted to find a Benedictine monastery to learn the fundamentals.

“Now, I thought, in case it was in ten years that the Holy Father did speak, would it not be well for me to get some spiritual formation for my own soul and later on to have to pass on to my companions, if God ever blessed me with this great desire to be able to have a group of women for the work in Africa? I was always greatly interested in Benedictine spirituality and I thought that if I could get somewhere near a Benedictine monastery, somewhere where I could get just the principles and fundamentals of religious life, so as to have a good solid basis, so that afterwards God, in His own way, could form the spirit of the Order in any way he wished to meet the needs of the Church and time – but where to do that I didn’t know. I didn’t know at that time of any Benedictine monastery being in Ireland. So I was thinking of going off to England.”

Phase Six: Glenstal

Marie Martin made the most of opportunities. She discovered that there was a new Benedictine monastery in Ireland. Belgian monks had wanted to start a monastery but the local bishop asked them to run a boarding school. They knew little English and were struggling with the housekeeping.

Marie remembered,
“One day I was walking down the street ... and I met one of my aunts. She said, ‘Mary, you’re the very person I want.’

“I said, ‘What do you want me to do now?’

“She said, ‘It’s not to do anything, but that someone is very anxious to see you: one of the Benedictine monks from Glenstal, a disciple of Dom Marmion.’

“When I heard the words ‘Dom Marmion’ mentioned I was overjoyed, for I love his works and it was on his books I wished that we would all be formed. So I said, ‘Where is he?’

“She said, ‘He’s up in the Catholic Central Library. If you go up there now you’ll meet him.’”

Marie met Dom Gerard and offered to help with the housekeeping and infirmary.

“I thought it was well to tell him my little story. So I told him: that I had a great longing for this work, for the missions, and that we hoped one day, if the Holy Father ever spoke and gave permission, that we would be a group that would form a congregation of Medical Missionaries of Mary. But for the time being we had been advised to remain seculars and just to live trusting and waiting for God’s time.”

She said that in the meantime, if she could be any help she would be delighted. Dom Gerard was very pleased and then asked what salary she would expect.

Marie replied,
“Father, I’m delighted and willing to give my services for the love of God, if you in return would give me and my companions conferences on the religious and spiritual life, that we may be fundamentally right, and that from that may branch out whatever spirit God wanted for the new work, if it ever comes into being.”

“This, naturally, pleased him very much, for at that time they were very poor. He went off post haste down to see Archbishop [Harty] to tell him of the offer he had got, and the next thing I got a cable from the Benedictines, saying that the archbishop was very pleased to hear and approved of us going. I sat down and wrote a very nice letter, as I thought, to the archbishop. By return of post I got another letter back saying he had given no permission whatsoever for the founding of the congregation.”

The following is a continuation of the story of the founding of MMM from other sources.

This disappointment was overcome when Archbishop Harty was assured that a new religious institute was not being started in his diocese. The women were coming only to look after the domestic arrangements of the college (secondary school). When Marie later visited him, he welcomed her courteously, and on 21 March 1934, Miss Martin and Miss Leydon (the future Sister Patrick) arrived in Glenstal Priory.

Marie was away during much of 1934 with buying necessary items for the school and interviewing prospective candidates for the new society, whenever it would be founded. Finally in August she was able to return but soon faced another setback. During an inspection of the school dormitories, a heavy radiator fell on her foot. Her toes were crushed and she had to be brought to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin.

Long periods of treatment, including two operations, followed. Nevertheless, there were rays of hope. Miss O’Rourke (the future Sister Magdalen) arrived in Glenstal in February 1935. On 11 February 1935, Marie wrote: “It is now we start in earnest the foundation of M.M.M.” Caroline Nichols (the future Sister Immaculata) came in 1936.

While Marie was still in the hospital Msgr. Joseph Moynagh, of Saint Patrick’s Missionary Society, visited her. He had been appointed Prefect Apostolic of Calabar, Nigeria. He had visited Father Patrick Whitney, founder of the Society, before leaving to take up his appointment. Msgr. Moynagh wanted to reopen a Catholic hospital in Anua that had been closed due to lack of staff and asked for Father Whitney’s advice. He was told, “Go up to Saint Vincent’s Nursing Home and see Mary Martin.”

When he said he wanted to reopen a hospital, Marie told him she thought she could find two nurses but had no idea about a doctor. She told him that she wanted to start a medical congregation to help mothers and children in Africa. She had left the Holy Rosary Sisters because it seemed they would be a teaching congregation. She asked him if he would be willing to accept her in his prefecture if permission was granted and she came with other women to found a congregation in Nigeria. He reminded her of the prohibition for women religious to practice gynaecology but she believed she would get permission. He was so impressed by her cheerfulness and courage that he agreed. Now another obstacle to the founding of the society was removed.

Bishop Moynagh later remarked, “The thought in the back of my mind was that she would never be able to come, but I did say yes and I did feel that she had something extraordinary.”

Marie was not able to return to Glenstal until July 1935. She and her companions looked after the college housekeeping, followed a monastic timetable, and attended conferences given by the monks about various aspects of religious life.

In early January 1936, Father Hugh Kelly, who had been Marie’s spiritual director, was invited to guide the group in three days of prayer before the feast of the Epiphany. During that time he helped Marie, along with Benedictines Dom Bede and Dom David, to draft the MMM Constitutions. Marie did not make the triduum herself but arranged to do ‘a real Benedictine retreat’ with the nuns at Kylemore Abbey in the west of Ireland at the end of February. In the meantime she arranged for Misses Leydon and O’Rourke to begin their midwifery training in Dublin. They had completed a year’s religious training in Glenstal.