Out of the darkness, Mary Lourdes Martin shines very bright

Mary Lourdes Martin wasn’t dealt the greatest hand in life. Born premature and blind since birth, Mary has made the most of her 67 years on this Earth. With the love and guidance of her parents early on, and the passion for not letting anything hold her back, Mary has worked hard to now hold the winning hand.

Your entry into this world was very traumatic. Please describe what happened.

I was premature baby — I was in the hospital 2½ months. I was given an overdose of oxygen and it caused blood vessels behind eyes to burst causing me to be blind. My parents, James and Jane Martin, were shocked, but they learned to cope. They were very supportive of me. They named me Mary Lourdes after the Blessed Mother, and dressed me in blue and white for seven years in honor of the Blessed Mother. We visited shrines, but no cure was received.

You grew up the youngest of four children, and despite your blindness, you are a very positive person. How do you do it?

My mother was my first teacher — she taught me how to pray, urged me to develop my skills and not feel sorry for myself and just deal with it. I developed a positive attitude early on, which bolstered my confidence in myself. I love to find ways to solve a problem, especially as it concerns mechanical things or “gadgets.” My dad supported me by modifying the home or creating implements — by making wooden signature guides so I could sign my checks. He created a board with holes for throwing bean bags, modified a checkerboard so I could play checkers, and numerous other things.

What was your childhood like?

When I was about 3 or 4 years old, my mother asked me to take a book from the shelf and she would read it to me. I said, “Mom, why can’t I feel the pictures and the print on the page? It’s blank.” She replied, “That’s because your eyes are broken. You’re blind. If I could give my life savings to correct it I would, but you’re just going to have to deal with it. I don’t want to hear any more talk about it.”

Music is a big part of your life.

I was given a toy piano, and after listening to a song on the record player, I was able to play the tune on my toy piano. My godmother taught me to play the ukulele; I also learned the baritone ukulele. My parents gave me a portable organ for Christmas. Early in my work career, my parents bought me a spinet Hammond organ. My family also had a piano, but I preferred the organ for its variety of functions. I later purchased another organ, and finally a Hammond Aurora Classic organ.

You never let your disability interfere with your education, attending elementary schools in Utica and then the former Utica Catholic Academy. What were those years like?

In sixth grade, I got better at typing. My mother made sure I practiced typing every day, especially during summer months (when other children were out playing). I graduated with honors from elementary school and attended Utica Catholic Academy from 1968-1972. Students were very helpful, guiding me to classes, etc. I joined the Glee Club for short while (Angela Nassar was my teacher), but I dropped out to pay more attention to my coursework. Because of my mother’s intervention in the education system, I was able to take the college prep and SAT exams in braille. My diploma was written in braille. I also taught a mini course in how to read braille to 10 fellow high school students. In high school, I won third place in a nationwide contest for an essay on blindness.

After high school, you spent a year at D’Youville College in Buffalo, and then moved to the Albany area to obtain schooling through the Albany Association of the Blind. You also received training at the Central Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. What did you learn at these places?

I received training during high school on how to use a white cane. CABVI also assisted me over the years in learning various functions and helping to orient me to my new apartment. I received rehabilitation, orientation skills, mobility and daily living skills. I also took an office training course of study.

Getting into the work world must have been different for you. What was it like?

In 1976, I interviewed with the New York State Department of Transportation in Albany, and before I completed my office training course I was hired. Before fully assuming those duties, from June 1976 to February 1977, I worked under the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act program to gain further office training. I also got additional orientation and practice by working for the state Department of Taxation and Finance in Albany two-and-a-half days per week.

My work coach in Albany looked for job openings and found one for me with the state Department of Transportation in Utica. I worked there for just over 31 years retiring in 2009. At times, I felt left out of the department’s social gatherings, but after several years I became more accepted by my co-workers. While on the job with the DOT — first as a dictating machine operator and then as a keyboard specialist — I learned to use various technology devices to perform my duties. Early on, I used the “OPTICON,” which read the printed word to me via vibration, letter by letter. In 1991, I started using computer with “talking” software.

You lector at Mass. Why did you decide to do that and were you nervous the first few times reading from your braille book?

Father John Rose asked me to give a talk on disabilities when he was pastor. I could not say no to a priest, so I went ahead and gave the talk. I was nervous but did fine. Afterward, Sister Betty Giarrusso, with encouragement from my sister Pat Carroll, asked me to try lectoring, and said that the Holy Spirit would help me. I then contacted Rosemarie Chiffy in response to an ad for lectors to sign up. She set up practice time for me to read. I did well and got on the roster of lectors. I was nervous the first few times but not so much anymore.

You were a parishioner at Blessed Sacrament for years. How did you feel when the parish was closed?

I was sad upon hearing that Blessed Sacrament would be closing. St. Mary of Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament seemed to be a very welcoming parish, so I eventually got used to it. I love the music, enjoy the Mass along with Father Jim’s homilies, and find the parishioners to be friendly. Father Rose was instrumental in helping to make the transition from Blessed Sacrament to Mount Carmel easier for me.

What does being Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament parishioner mean to you now?

I am very happy there with the Mass, the music and the people. I especially appreciate Father Jim’s jokes and sense of humor. It’s amazing to me how he can so easily give his sometimes lengthy homily without, I am told, any notes.

Karen McBride is your good friend who was very instrumental in helping with this article. What are your feelings about her?

Karen came into my life in January 2004 when I was unsure as to how I would get to church. Sister Betty put me in touch with Karen, who lived not far from me. We got acquainted and have been good friends ever since.

What advice would you give to those who are having difficulties in life?

Keeping a positive, upbeat attitude is of the utmost importance. I strive to be a happy person, living life to the best of my ability. I believe there is a reason for everything, and that you must learn to deal with what you are given.

Mary Lourdes Martin

Age: 67.

Education: John F. Hughes and Roosevelt elementary schools, Utica Catholic Academy, attended D’Youville College in Buffalo, Central Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Albany Association of the Blind.

Employment: Retired. Worked for 31 years at the state Department of Transportation in Utica.

Interests: Knitting, attending Planet Fitness, latch-hooking, using the talking software on her computer, shopping on QVC, listening to audio books, watching TV, watching movies that use descriptive video for the blind, giving advice to help solve others’ problems, caring for her budgie parakeet “Chipper,” lectoring at Mass.

Favorite book: “The Guardian” by Nicholas Sparks.

Favorite TV show: “Jeopardy,” “Cash Cab.”

Favorite quote: “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” — Ecclesiastes 3:11

Photo by Thomas Loughlin Jr.