The Seed of an Idea

The Seed of an Idea

The following are excerpts from the introduction to a larger publication, The Seed of an Idea, that was published in 1984.

The Seed of an Idea
(Written by Sister Ruth Carey, first published on the occasion of the death of Mother Martin, January 1975)

02maltaThe ancient heroic Irish saga, the Fianna, relates that on an occasion, Finn, the hero-leader was asked what music he liked best. He spoke of the song of the blackbird, the screaming of the eagle, the sound of the waterfall, the baying of the hounds. But when Oisin, the poetic dreamer, was asked what music delighted him, he replied: ‘The music of the thing that happens.’

For nearly forty years the friends of the Medical Missionaries of Mary have been listening to Oisin’s favourite music; indeed, they have been creating it – mostly in tempo rapido, providing an occasional crashing crescendo, with rare, very rare periods of andante, the musicians moderately slow. Never has the tempo been lento, never has the time been slow. Most of you were personal friends of the Foundress of MMM, the late Mother Mary Martin, and associate her immediately with “the music of the thing that happens”, a routine of one thing after another and sometimes everything at once. So looking back on her life it is difficult – even for us – to believe that there was a time when MMM did not exist, that it was not ever thus, or that its emergence was preceded at one time by a long period of what seemed eternal waiting – the years from 1918 to 1937. These were the years when the future Mother Mary was 26-44 years of age. To hang on to an uncertain ideal during that span of a woman’s life is in itself not without significance; when there was nothing to do but wait.

An ironic fact about war is that while it hastens the development of destructive forces, it also hastens the development of more positive forces that constructively influence a later day. So it was in the case of the Foundress of the Medical Missionaries of Mary. At 25 years of age, auburn haired and vivacious, she had returned from World War I full of her experiences as a Voluntary Aid Defence nurse; and also full of an idea.

Our western civilisation today rests on ideas; ideas originally voiced before a handful of men. The Greek philosophers spoke their ideas to those who stood nearby. The ideas of these men were so great they spread almost of their own inherent force. It has ever been so with ideas – little ideas which may have been shouted loudly to the multitudes soon fell by the wayside, but ideas spoken softly to the few flourished and grew. It was thus with the ideas engendered in that slightly built, rather frail young “war veteran”. Her idea was a vivid realisation of the enormous apostolic possibilities of medical work. Her experience nursing war wounded opened her eyes, very round and very blue, on medical missionary horizons. She could see it all. Time would tell whether or not her idea came from God, and whether or not He would use her to translate it into reality.

Many important missionaries had already shared this vision. But all were powerless to do anything towards making it a reality, because since the Middle Ages, religious were not allowed to engage in surgery or obstetrics, and this applied equally to religious men and women. Many missionaries had represented the need, and the urgency of the need, for medical missionaries. Rome was examining the whole question. The question was: what was the place of medical work in the missions? Secondly, who should do the work? Thirdly, how were they going to be trained? Fourthly, are Sisters suitable at all for this kind of work? Fifthly, if they are, to what extent can they do it? These were the fences, but the young girl back from the war saw only the horizons. All avenues she explored to reach her goal turned out to be blind alleys, fruitless efforts leading nowhere, long years when life seemed to be merely passing by. The trial and error, the waiting, the atmosphere of it all. We want to share with you now some ideas “spoken softly to the few” and taken from our house annals. They cover one period of “waiting” – the last, although she did not know it – in the future Mother Mary’s efforts to found a congregation of religious Sisters who would devote themselves to the medical apostolate in mission lands.

The size of an idea – with Benedictine Spirituality

This period begins in Grafton Street, Dublin. The future Mother Mary was out shopping and met her aunt who was on a similar errand. In an exchange of ‘news’ her aunt told her of the troubles of her friend, Dom Gerard Francois, the Prior of the Benedictine Priory, as it then was, at Glenstal, Co. Limerick. Glenstal was a rambling castle built on Norman lines and owned by the Barrington family. In 1927 it had been taken over by a handful of monks from the Benedictine Abbey of Maredsous, Belgium, and founded as a Benedictine Priory in honour of their Irish Abbot, Dom Columba Marmion, who had died there four years previously and in fulfilment of his cherished dream of seeing the Benedictines back in Ireland. (The Benedictine monasteries in Ireland had been entirely destroyed during the Reformation.)…

The size of an idea – shared. “Spoken softly to the few”

At the interview, Mother Mary told the Prior of her idea for founding a medical Congregation She offered her services to the College and in recompense asked that, while living as seculars, because on the question of religious doing full medical work no pronouncement had been made by Rome so far, she and her future companions would receive some education in the spiritual and religious life. The Prior was delighted. All necessary permissions were requested, and granted.

The idea planted

March 1, 1934. Mother Mary went to Glenstal and on the Feast of Saint Joseph, March 19, she was joined by her first companion, now Sister Mary Patrick, MMM, who apart from routine vacations has given the thirty best years of her life to the missions.

March 21, Feast of Saint Benedict. She and Mother Mary took over the management of the boy’s college.

For the future MMM it marked a decisive stage in the development of the beginnings, although this fact was still hidden from their eyes. For Glenstal, it marked the end of a period of domestic embarrassment – but unfortunately not of uncertainty.

The idea germinating

“A grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die. . . but if it dies it yields rich fruit” Jn. 12:24.

All went well for a few weeks. Then the future Sister M. Patrick’s father fell ill and she had to go home. Months went by before she could return and it was not until mid-August that they were settled in once more. All went well again – for another two weeks during which they were busy preparing for the boys’ return to college in September. Then an accident happened to Mother Mary. One day, when going through the boys’ dormitories with Dom Bede Lebbe, who was then Prior, a radiator which was loose from the wall fell on her right foot and crushed the toes very badly. With all the speed possible at that time, she was taken from Glenstal to St. Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin. After a short time her condition became alarmingly serious. Penicillin was not yet on the market, antibiotics as we know them today were non-existent. Gangrene set in. Would the leg have to be amputated? Yes, the surgeon said. The physician thought no – the heart would not stand the operation. After much cogitation, discussion and conferences, the leg was saved and three toes were amputated.

Christmas 1934, the patient still very far from recovery and facing the long pull back to health, was discharged from hospital and went to convalesce with her mother at home in Greenbank, Monkstown, Dublin. In the new year, Mother Mary consulted Father Hugh Kelly, S.J., her spiritual director, and Dom David Maffei, Sub-Prior and Novice Master at Glenstal, who was appointed to look after the nucleus of the Congregation. It was decided that the future Sister Patrick and another young girl who had offered herself, now Sister M. Magdalen, MMM, who has devoted most of her religious life so far to promotion work for the Congregation, should continue at Glenstal under the spiritual guidance and help of Dom David, until Mother Mary was able to return. February 12, 1935, Dom David started his formal instructions on the religious life. And thus the last stage is revealed with Mother Mary convalescing in her home, and the two pioneers being educated in the religious life at Glenstal….

In the years 1918-34 Miss Martin was nurturing her idea and putting it into practice at a personal level. Shortly after her return from World War I she met Bishop Joseph Shanahan, C.S.Sp., Vicar Apostolic of Calabar, E. Nigeria, and responded to his appeal for the very work she had visualised, the care of mothers and babies. She trained as a midwife and sailed for Nigeria in May 1921. There she worked for three years in closest contact with African women.

Her years there convinced her of the urgent need for competent medical help on the missions, especially for maternity work. While waiting for permission she did what she could to prepare for the day when the congregation of Medical Missionaries of Mary, which she felt it was her charism to found, could be established with the approval and blessing of the Church.’…

June 25, 1935. Mother Mary left Dublin by the evening train and arrived in Glenstal when all were at Compline, and in the midst of a thunderstorm. It was a surprise for the staff for they were not expecting her. She was very happy to be back and received a great welcome from Dom Bede Lebbe, Dom David, Father John, the Cellarer, as well as from the two future MMMs of course. She looked very frail and thin and was very weak after her long illness. She was lame and could not wear a proper shoe on her injured foot, but wore a cloth one instead.

November, 1935. The little community could now live a more regular religious life with their order of time, hours of prayer and regular spiritual instruction. Dom Bede Lebbe, the Prior, had a great influence on the future MMM. As a friend and monk of Abbot Marmion he had made his own that great master’s spirituality. Dom Lebbe was himself a scholar of European fame with a Doctorate in Literature and Music and was in himself the essence of humility and simplicity, he had a very human character and was always bubbling over with joy. At this time he was a great help to Mother Mary and he in turn depended very much on her for the management of the College.

February, 1936. Mother Mary went to Kylemore Abbey, Co. Galway, to make an eight-day retreat which Dom Bede Lebbe was giving to the Benedictine nuns. The morning Mother Mary came out of retreat Dorn Bede Lebbe handed her a copy of the Universe which gave with banner headlines, a copy of the decree issued from the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fide, Rome, allowing religious women to do maternity work and also full medical and surgical work; in fact, the right to practice medicine in all its branches.

The Sacred Congregation said that its practice had always been to have the methods of the apostolate conform to the varying needs of time and place; that the significance of medical work, especially maternity work, had been brought home to it by reports from Bishops, Vicars Apostolic and missionaries all over the wide mission fields of the world, and that after mature study it had decided that medical work, especially for women and children, should have better provision made for it in the future. Consequently it expressed the desire for the foundation of new religious institutes of women who would dedicate themselves principally to that work, and the wish that already existing institutes should take on this work also. It emphasised the necessity for the best and most-up-to-date equipment and training. It insisted that all that concerned the spiritual education and security of such religious should be abundantly guaranteed. This decree is a landmark in the history of Catholic missions and was decisive in the history of MMM. To Mother Mary it was like a direct and gracious answer to her prayers and years of waiting. Now “the stone was rolled back”. With this instruction she felt she had the full support of the Church for her work.

In Glenstal, the future MMMs also read the decree in the paper and praised and thanked God that the way was now open.

Mother Mary returned to Glenstal and all rejoiced together. Then she went to Dublin to consult with the Apostolic Nuncio about the steps to be taken. He suggested she should write to Rome, which she did, stating her aims and ideals, and that she already had a nucleus to begin with.

The Size of an Idea

May 11, 1936. Permission came from Rome to found the Congregation. The following letter from Mother Mary at Glenstal to two MMM students in Holles Street Maternity Hospital, Dublin, gives news of it.

“God be forever praised, loved and thanked in all things. This morning Father Prior received an answer to our humble petition. This is the chief part, I shall show you the whole letter when I see you on Thursday, please God, when I shall be in Dublin.

“We shall need great prayer now – first of thanksgiving and then of petition, that we may be guided in all the steps we take to carry out the instructions of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fide; to find a Bishop and then a nun to train us. God will give us all, and you will see, vocations also. Praise God in all you do in love and gratitude.

“I must end up this letter now as I have so many to write today. I shall see you this week please God. All send their love to you.”

Mother Mary and the little group had planned to leave Glenstal by September 1936 and in the meantime, while negotiating to get placed in a diocese, Mother Mary’s mother, Mrs. Martin, came to the rescue and offered her a basement not in use in her home “Greenbank”, Monkstown, Dublin, as a temporary residence. Miss Ethel Martin, Mother Mary’s sister, who was always willing to lend a helping hand, helped to fix up the temporary quarters for the Sisters at Greenbank while her brothers regarded the whole affair much as most’ brothers would. By this time there was a community’ of five counting two newcomers in training in Holles Street Maternity Hospital, Dublin, who now came to Greenbank basement for their days and nights off.

Hardly had they settled in here when events took another sudden turn. In September 1936, His Excellency Archbishop Antonio Riberi, Apostolic Delegate to East and West Africa, came on a visit to His Excellency the Nuncio, Dr. Paschal Robinson, at Dublin. When Mother Mary had visited the Nuncio in 1933, Monsignor Riberi had been the Nuncio’s secretary. In the meantime, as Apostolic Delegate in mission territories he had seen for himself the urgent need of medical missionaries in all the missions he had visited. He hardly needed a serious motor accident to persuade him further, but he had one, and difficulties of hospitalisation drove the lesson home. So, one of the first things he did when he arrived in Ireland was to enquire from His Excellency the Nuncio if that lady was going ahead with the contemplated work. She went to see him and told him how far she had got and the present situation.

His Excellency, Archbishop Riberi, there and then suggested she should go to Africa and make the foundation and first novitiate there. he was due for visitation in Nigeria, and if the Vicar Apostolic of Calabar agreed to having the Congregation erected in his Vicariate, the providential visit of His Excellency would permit this to be done with the minimum of delay. The vicar Apostolic, Monsignor Moynagh cabled: “Come sailing in December”. Three passages were booked on the Abosso. A little farewell party was held in the basement kitchen at Greenbank. Dom Bede Lebbe, Father Hugh Kelly, S.J. (Mother Mary’s spiritual director) and Miss Ryder, constant friend and provider, were there. The following year in his Christmas letter to Mother Mary, Dom Bede referred to it: “I remember the nice reunion of last year, in the kitchen -so much joy and charity, so many hopes: and now some are fulfilled. You are three professed! All the rest will come in His time”.

Meantime the Annals relate exciting events:

January 18, 1937. Mother Mary and her two companions arrived in Africa. By February 6, 1937, all three were settled in their new home in Anua, 30 miles by road followed by an hour by launch from Calabar, where the Prefect Apostolic Monsignor Moynagh resided.

Saturday, February 20, 1937. The Apostolic Delegate Archbishop Riberi arrived. He came over from the mission with his secretary and Monsignor Moynagh to see Mother Mary and had a long discussion regarding plans for the future. She stayed up late that night preparing data for Monsignor next morning as he had to prepare his statements for Rome.

Saturday, February 27, 1937. Mother Mary did not feel well.

Sunday, February 28, 1937. Mother Mary was not able to stay for Mass and had to retire to bed.

March 2, 1937. Monsignor Moynagh came with the letters and petitions ready for Rome.

Wednesday, March 3, 1937. Mother Mary got a heart attack at 11 p.m. Miss Powell and Miss Darcy (two nurses from Ireland helping in the mission hospital) and Doctor Dunleavy were called. During the night, at Mother’s own wish, Monsignor Moynagh was sent for and he came and gave her the last Sacraments. She feared she was dying and said good-bye to the Sisters. She was happy and at peace.

Thursday, March 4, 1937. Mother Mary feeling a little better today. Doctor Dunleavy came to see her. He himself was not feeling well and went to bed after doing the Dispensary.

Friday, March 5, 1937. His Excellency Archbishop Riberi came to visit Mother Mary and gave her great hopes of an early reply from Rome. Doctor Dunleavy very ill. Nurse Darcy stayed up with him all night.

Saturday, March 6, 1937. His Excellency Archbishop Riberi left this morning. Monsignor Moynagh went with him as far as Emekuku and brought back Doctor Noeth, a German mission doctor, to see Mother Mary and Doctor Dunleavy.

Sunday, March 7, 1937. Doctor Noeth advised sending Doctor Dunleavy to the Government Hospital at Port Harcourt. He was taken there that same day.

Tuesday, March 9, 1937. We got a terrible shock today when news came from Port Harcourt that Doctor Dunleavy had died. R.I.P. The remains were taken from Port Harcourt to Anua.

Wednesday, March 10, 1937. Solemn Requiem Mass at 8 a.m. for Doctor Dunleavy and the funeral took place afterwards. He was buried in the mission compound.

Sunday, March 14, 1937. Mother Mary running a temperature of 102 today and feeling very weak.

Monday, March 15, 1937. Mother Mary very ill today, still running a high temperature.

Tuesday, March 16, 1937. Mother Mary still very ill. We wired Doctor Noeth to come, which he did in the evening. He gave us good hope.

Wednesday, March 17, 1937 (St. Patrick’s Day). Mother Mary was poorly today and Doctor Noeth had to return to his mission hospital.

Monday, March 22, 1937. Monsignor Moynagh wired for Doctor Noeth again although Mother Mary is feeling a bit better but very weak.

Tuesday, March 23, 1937. Doctor Noeth came today and arranged for Mother to go to the Government Hospital in Port Harcourt on Thursday. He advises she goes home.

Thursday, March 25, 1937. Holy Thursday and Feast of the Annunciation. Father McGettrick came over about 5.15 a.m. and brought Mother Mary Holy Communion. He came back later with a car and they set out for Port Harcourt, the future Sister M. Magdalen going with them. Doctor Noeth joined them en route at Aba. When the hospital doctor, Doctor Braithwaithe, saw the patient he said she must go home on the next boat.

March 26, 1937 Good Friday. We went to the ceremonies in the mission. All is so quiet and still after the anxious events of the last few weeks. We are wondering how Mother Mary is today.

March 27, 1937 Holy Saturday. Monsignor Moynagh came from Calabar. He was very anxious about Mother and said he would consult Archbishop Riberi who was in Onitsha about cabling Rome regarding the petitions. The whole suspense and anxiety is caused by the fact that she would have to leave for home before the reply came. Monsignor said he would not take the responsibility of keeping her if the doctors advised against it.

March 29, 1937 Easter Monday. We are still in suspense, no news of Mother, no news from Rome. The hospital and dispensary are closed, everything very still and quiet.

March 30, 1937 Easter Tuesday. Great news and jubilation. The reply from Rome has come to Monsignor Moynagh, all petitions are granted. Laus Deo. The Congregation was to be canonically erected, Mother Mary professed, and her two companions to do six months canonical Novitiate.

March 31, 1937 Easter Wednesday. A wire came from Mother Mary today to say she had received good news from Monsignor Moynagh. We recited the Magnificat and Te Deum.

April 2, 1937 Easter Friday. Monsignor Moynagh arrived from Calabar today. He was very happy over the good news from Rome. He said he could not give any decision on anything until he saw Mother Mary. He was going to Port Harcourt next day and was anxious for her Profession straight away. We said it might be possible that we should not be there owing to the difficulty of transport and accommodation.

April 3, 1937 Easter Saturday. Monsignor Moynagh, Father Cullen, Mother M. Fidelis and Mother M. Bernard of the Society of the Holy Child, went to Port Harcourt today.

April 4, 1937 Low Sunday. Mother Mary was professed today in Port Harcourt Hospital. MMM is canonically erected. Te Deum laudamus.

The details of the little ceremony are best summarised in Mother Mary’s letter home, to her mother in “Greenbank”.


Catholic Medical Mission,
European Hospital,
Port Harcourt,
Southern Nigeria.

April 6, 1937.
My dearest Mother,

With joy I write to tell you of the great news. MMM has been erected and I was professed on Low Sunday. The infant society was born in a hospital. By kind permission of Doctor Braithwaithe, Monsignor Moynagh had Mass and the beautiful little ceremony. Nothing could have pleased me more, it was so hidden and so simple. I took for my name Sister Mary of the Incarnation. Miss O’Rourke and Miss Moynagh have been asked to make great acts of detachment for they were not present at the ceremony. The Reverend Mother (Mother M. Fidelis, SHCJ) and Mother M. Bernard, SHCJ, our Novice Mistress had to be there. Also two of the Killeshandra nuns came for it.

It is naturally a great consolation after all these years to have the approval of the Holy Father, the Church, and to be a Spouse of Christ in a medical missionary society. Now, the great responsibility begins and the hard work, but I shall with God’s help go forward as I did in the past with absolute trust and confidence in God’s loving Providence renewed in courage and strength knowing He will complete the work He has begun.

You will be anxious to hear about my health: it is improving slowly. The great difficulty is to gain much strength in this great heat. I hope in a day or two to be able to dress and walk about a bit so as to be on my legs before sailing which will be on April 21. I will tell you all in detail when I get home. It is a wonderful little story and all arranged by God.

Your devoted child in Jesus & Mary,

Sister Mary of the Incarnation
(Sister Mary Martin MMM)