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Norah Margaret Martin (1888–1977)

by J. C. H. Dewdney

This article was published:

Norah Margaret Martin (1888-1977), mother superior and hospital nurse, was born on 18 June 1888 at Box Creek, near Booligal, New South Wales, sixth and youngest child of Irish immigrants Patrick Martin, grazier, and his wife Mary, née Sullivan. Norah spent her early childhood at Box Creek before joining two of her sisters at the Hillston convent school, run by the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart. In 1901 they returned home to help their widowed mother. By 1905 the Riverina property had been sold and the family moved to Sydney.

In June 1908 Norah Martin entered the Little Company of Mary at Lewisham Hospital as a postulant and trainee nurse. She received the habit on 4 July 1909, taking the religious names Mary Bernard, and made her final vows on 6 August 1912. In December 1913 she passed the examinations for membership of the Australasian Trained Nurses' Association. As a specialist in operating-theatre techniques, she was transferred in 1917 to the congregation's Lewisham Hospital, Christchurch, New Zealand. Sister Bernard succeeded Mother Xavier Lynch in 1929 as provincial superior in Sydney. In accordance with the community's 'six-year rule', she relinquished leadership of the province in 1935; she then served as superior and matron of Lewisham Hospital until reappointed provincial superior in 1941.

Mother Bernard's outstanding leadership of the Australasian Province was recognized in 1947 by her election in Rome as superior general, the L.C.M.'s highest office. She was probably the first Australian woman to head an international congregation. Visits to all of the congregation's houses (of which there were more than forty) took her to North and South America, Southern Africa, Britain, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand and Australia. She helped to initiate the cause for the beatification of Mother Mary Potter, foundress of the Little Company of Mary. During Mother Bernard's years in office fifteen new hospitals were established, and the novitiate at the mother house in Rome was reopened (it had been closed in World War II).

After completing two six-year terms in Rome, Mother Bernard returned to Sydney in 1959. She was local superior at Mount St Margaret Hospital, Ryde, and, in 1965, provincial superior, New Zealand. In 1969 she was appointed O.B.E. That year she returned to Sydney to live in retirement at the Convent of the Maternal Heart, Ryde. At the age of 84 Mother Bernard began writing her unfinished autobiography, 'Footprints in the Sands of Time'. She admitted, regretfully, that her manner may have sometimes produced 'a mistaken idea of personal confidence . . . I did the best I could and put all my trust in Him, knowing that He could work through [me] . . . this gave me a tranquillity which enabled me to take responsibility . . . but it also caused a degree of misunderstanding to those with whom I worked or had contact'.

Mother Bernard was an extremely able, meticulous and determined woman who demanded strict conformity to what she considered to be unquestionable standards. Although she enjoyed competition, she was a rather ungracious loser. She generally evoked respect—even awe—rather than warmer sentiments, and yet she was generous, friendly and concerned in the company of her patients and closest colleagues. She died on 25 August 1977 at Mount St Margaret Hospital, Ryde, and was buried in Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May 1947, 20 June 1969, 7 Aug 1972
  • Catholic Weekly (Sydney), 8 Sept 1977
  • Little Company of Mary Archives, Calvary Hospital, Kogarah, Archives
  • Dalton Gardens, Ryde, Sydney, Archives
  • Little Company of Mary Generalate Archives, Tooting-Beck, Surrey, England.

Citation details

J. C. H. Dewdney, 'Martin, Norah Margaret (1888–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Mary Bernard, Sister
  • Mary Bernard, Mother

18 June, 1888
Booligal, New South Wales, Australia


25 August, 1977 (aged 89)
Ryde, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.