Martin is born Marie Helena Martin in Glenageary, County Dublin, on April 24, 1892, the second of twelve children of Thomas Martin and Mary Moore. In 1904, while attending classes for her First Communion, she contracts rheumatic fever, which is to affect her heart permanently. Tragedy hits the family on St. Patrick’s Day 1907, as her father is killed in what is presumed to be an accidental shooting. Later her mother sends her to schools in Scotland, England and Germany, all of which she leaves as quickly as possible.
Upon the outbreak of World War I, Martin joins the Voluntary Aid Detachment, a division of the Red Cross. In October 1915, she is assigned to work in Malta. After learning that her brother had been killed in the campaign of Gallipoli, she returns to Ireland in April 1916. She is called to serve again a month later at Neufchâtel-Hardelot, France, in a field hospital near the front lines of the Battle of the Somme. This assignment lasts until December of that year, followed by a brief stint in Leeds, England. After the war, she is called upon help in nursing victims of the Spanish flu, which had begun to devastate populations around the world.
In 1917 a new curate comes to the parish which Martin attends, the Reverend Thomas Roynane, to whom she turns for guidance. Roynane inspires her with an interest in pursuing missionary work. She goes to England in January 1919 for further medical training. Her mother’s severe illness the following year interrupts her training, however, as she has to return home to care for her.
In April 1920, Roynane arranges for Martin to meet the new bishop, and she volunteers her services as a lay missionary to work in his jurisdiction in southern Nigeria. Agnes Ryan, a local schoolteacher now in her fourth year of medical training, advises her that she wishes to join her in the African mission.
In April 1921, Martin and Ryan leave Ireland for Nigeria. They set sail for Africa from Liverpool on May 25 and arrive in the port of Calabar on June 14. They arrive prepared to provide medical care, only to learn that they are expected to run a school which had been staffed by French Religious Sisters until two years prior. To give the parents and children of the school a sense of continuity, the two women are addressed as “Sisters” by the priests and treated as if they are already members of an established religious institute.
By October, Ryan contracts malaria and develops a heart condition, which require her return to Ireland. Forced to fill in as Acting Headmistress, Martin meets with the bishop in his headquarters at Onitsha and is advised that caution is needed in providing medical care to the people of her mission, so as not to provoke objections by other missionaries in the region. Upon her return to Calabar, she makes a 30-day retreat.
In April 1922 the bishop travels there and holds two weeks of consultations with Martin, Roynane and another missioner, during which the Rule and Constitutions of a new congregation are hammered out, with the understanding that Martin will be the foundress. Martin does not see the bishop again for two years. During this time she learns that the bishop is working to establish the new congregation in Ireland, a direction she feels will focus the congregation on teaching rather than the medical care. An Irish Sister of Charity, Sister Magdalen Walker, is released from her congregation to help in this new work and arrives in Calabar in October 1923.
The following January Martin is directed by the bishop to return to Ireland to make a canonical novitiate. In March she starts her time of postulancy, prior to admission to the novitiate year. After 18 months, however, upon completion of the novitiate year she leaves the community, as the training provided by the Dominican Sisters has not been oriented toward medical care.
In this formal step of forming the new congregation, Martin encounters the prohibition in the new Code of Canon Law of 1917 of the Catholic Church against members of religious orders practicing medicine. Facing this barrier, she still feels a call to consecrated life and considers following the example of the recently canonized Carmelite nun, Thérèse of Lisieux. In 1927 she applies to the community of that Order in Dublin, but her application is declined, solely on the decision of the prioress who feels that Martin is called to a different path in life. She then goes through a new period of confusion until she is requested to consider again serving the missions. She then forms a small group of women to provide the domestic service for the preparatory school run by the Benedictine monks Glenstal Abbey.
In 1933, following a long period of illness, Martin approaches the new Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Paschal Robinson. He is supportive of her goals and encourages her continually over the next years. Finally, in February 1936, the Holy See lifts prohibition against Religious Sisters serving as doctors or midwives. She then seeks a diocese which will accept a new congregation, without success. In October of that same year, Antonio Riberi is named Apostolic Delegate in Africa, based in Kenya. He gives his support to having the congregation established in Calabar.
While still negotiating to purchase a house in Ireland as a local base, complicated by the fact that they are not yet a formal congregation, the small community sails for Nigeria at the end of 1936. Upon their arrival Martin suffers a heart attack and is hospitalized at Port Harcourt. It is there that she professes religious vows on April 4, 1937. With that the Medical Missionaries of Mary become established.
Martin’s health is always a source of concern but she lives until 1975. Today the Medical Missionaries of Mary number some 400 women from 16 different nations, who serve in 14 different countries around the world.