Martin, Máire (Marie, Mary) Helena (‘Mother Mary’) (1892–1975), founder of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, was born 25 April 1892 at Glencar, Marlborough Road, Glenageary, Co. Dublin, eldest among twelve children of Thomas Patrick Martin, partner in T. & C. Martin, a successful firm of builders’ providers, and Mary Lewis Martin (née Moore), originally of Ashton House, Phoenix Park, whose family was also well connected and successful in business. The family moved to Greenbank, Monkstown, Co. Dublin, where Mary, then known as ‘Marie’, with her eleven siblings, spent the greater part of her youth. The emotional security of her early years was shattered on 17 March 1907, when her father shot himself through the eye; the inquest returned a verdict of accidental death. After a brief attendance at the Sacred Heart convent, Leeson St., Dublin, she continued her education at St Mary's convent, Edinburgh, and the Holy Child convent in Harrogate, before being sent to a finishing school in Bonn, Germany. While at school, she had a bout of rheumatic fever, which caused long-term health problems, but she was sociable and outgoing, and enjoyed the round of society events in Dublin. From an early age, however, she also showed an interest in charity work among the sick in the Monkstown area.
The outbreak of the first world war proved to be a watershed for both Mary and her family. She immediately decided to train as a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment, and three of her brothers joined the British army; two were killed on active service, one during the Gallipoli campaign, and the third was drowned. Having served in military hospitals in Malta, Leeds, and France, at the end of hostilities Martin returned to Dublin, convinced that her vocation lay in work with the sick. With this in mind she returned to England to receive further training (1919), but it was not till her meeting the following year with Fr Joseph Shanahan (qv), vicar apostolic of Calabar, in eastern Nigeria, that her plans began to take shape. Shanahan was anxious to recruit volunteers to work in his diocese, particularly in the fields of maternity nursing and childcare. With this in mind Martin began a course in midwifery in July 1920, receiving the certificate of the Central Midwives’ Board in February 1921. However, after her arrival in Nigeria (1921), accompanied by Agnes Ryan, a young medical student, she found herself largely restricted to work in a catholic boarding school in Calabar. Her visits to the rural areas confirmed her intention to provide health care for the local communities, especially for women and children, and she decided to found a religious congregation that could meet their needs. However, the Vatican banned all religious from involvement with any kind of obstetrics or surgical work, a ban in place since the middle ages, and it was not at all clear how her plans could succeed.
She returned to Ireland in 1923 and, on Bishop Shanahan's orders, reluctantly started on a noviciate with the community later known as the Holy Rosary Sisters, in Killeshandra, Co. Cavan. She left the convent after two years, without taking vows. This marked the start of a twelve-year period of disappointments, poor health, and frustrations, including a lack of practical support for her plans. She remained busy throughout, working as a volunteer in a Jesuit-run hostel in Glasgow (1928–9), and from her sickbed founded the first Dublin centre of the Apostolic Work Society. She also continued to canvass her plans with influential missionaries, notably Shanahan's successor, the Rev. James Moynagh, whom she first met in 1932. In March 1934 she went as matron to the boys in the recently opened Benedictine boarding school at Glenstal Priory, Co. Limerick; she brought with her as assistants a small number of young women who were to form the nucleus of the future Medical Missionaries of Mary. They all benefited greatly from the spiritual direction and support of the Benedictines. An accident while she was there led to gangrene in a foot and the threat of leg amputation; in the event she lost three toes and was greatly weakened.
In February 1936 the Vatican announced that the centuries-old ban on surgical work by religious was to end; this was the breakthrough for Mary Martin. She received formal endorsement of her proposals from Rome in May 1936, and set sail for Nigeria in November 1936. Soon after her arrival in Anua, Martin fell ill with malaria, and subsequently suffered a near-fatal heart attack. Mgr Moynagh received permission from Rome to set up the Medical Missionaries of Mary (MMM) as a religious congregation, and on 4 April 1937 Mary Martin was professed in Port Harcourt hospital (taking the name in religion ‘Mother Mary of the Incarnation’). While she returned to Ireland to recuperate from her illness and develop her order, the work in Nigeria was carried on by its two remaining Irish novices.
Lacking in financial support, in poor health, and with a fledgling congregation to develop, Martin had to begin the process of recruiting novices and raising funds from her hospital bed. Much-needed assistance came from Cardinal Joseph MacRory (qv), archbishop of Armagh, who invited her to open a noviciate in his diocese. After a period based in Collon, Co. Louth, it moved to a larger house in Drogheda, where a maternity hospital, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, was also founded. Through Martin's persistent optimism and hard work, this eventually developed as a state-recognised training college for midwives and, from 1957, was an International Missionary Training Hospital. MMM houses were also opened in Clonmel (1949) and Waterford (1952). The motherhouse in Drogheda was destroyed in a fire in February 1952, but was rebuilt and enlarged.
The rapid expansion of the order in Ireland was mirrored by similar developments in Nigeria throughout the 1940s and 1950s, with the establishment of treatment clinics, a leprosy centre, and hospital clinics in Anua, Ogoja, Afikpo, Obudu, and Ikom. Martin returned to Nigeria to review her sisters’ progress in 1946, bringing with her a British film crew, whose promotional documentary on the order's work, Visitation (1948), proved highly successful. Expansion continued throughout the post-war period with the establishment of foundations in Tanzania (1947), Naples (1952), Angola (1953), Uganda (1955), Ethiopia (1959), Kenya (1961), Brazil (1961), Formosa (Taiwan) (1961), Malawi (1962), and Spain (1962). With warm support from Cardinal Cushing in the US she opened a second noviciate in Boston in 1950, which moved to a larger house in Winchester, Massachusetts, in 1952. Martin maintained a close interest in each centre of the scattered order, and in 1959 made a tour of all its houses.
In later years her contribution to health care received official recognition from the International Red Cross (which awarded her (1963) the Florence Nightingale medal), the newly independent Nigerian state, and the RCSI, which granted her an honorary fellowship in 1966. She was the first woman to receive the freedom of the borough of Drogheda, on 6 June 1966. Having long been slow to delegate, she retired from her work altogether in October 1967 owing to increasingly poor health. She died 27 January 1975 at the order's mother house at Drogheda, and was buried in the convent plot in the nearby St Peter's cemetery. Her portrait (1953), painted by Seán O'Sullivan (qv), hangs in the order's house in Beechgrove, Drogheda.