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.”