J. Paul Martin, an Oblate priest for six years and Justice and Peace world leader for over 50 years, died at age 87 on Jan. 7, 2024, in New York City, USA, from pneumonia complicated by covid. Although his first name was Joseph, he never used it.

Early Life and Oblate Ministry

Born in England on June 28, 1936, Paul served as a young officer in the British Army, 1954-56.  He then entered the Oblate novitiate of the Anglo-Irish Province in 1956, making his first vows on Sept. 29, 1957.  He was then sent to the International Roman Scholasticate, where he attended the Angelicum, now called the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, earning Licentiates in Philosophy and Theology. He made his perpetual vows on Sept. 29, 1960 and was ordained to the priesthood on Feb. 22, 1964.

Paul was in Rome for the first two sessions of Vatican II, the autumn of 1962 and 1963.  By that time he had learned French, and was able to understand the two French journals we listened to during our meals: L’Information Catholique Internationale, and La Documentation Catholique.  These journals helped prepare us for the upheaval of Vatican II, as did the various Oblate bishops and theologians who visited the Scholasticate.

Ministry in Lesotho and Transition

Interacting with Oblate Bishop Francis Taylor of Stockholm, Sweden, Paul was thinking that he would serve in Sweden, when the Superior General, Fr. Léo DESCHÂTELETS, asked him to go to Lesotho, Southern Africa, to teach and become dean of the men’s residence at the new University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, to help in its transition from what had been an Oblate College to an independent public university.

While serving as dean of students and lecturer, Paul’s superior was Anthony HALL.  After three years in Lesotho, he received a scholarship that enabled him to enroll in Columbia University, New York City, USA, in 1967. He earned his Doctorate in Philosophy with the Thesis entitled “Educating the Sotho, 1833-1884, a study of the work of Protestant, Catholic and Anglican missionaries.” During his time at Columbia, he visited Oblate houses both in the United States and Canada.

Transition from Oblate Life

Paul fell in love, and left the Oblates after being in vows for 14 years.  He and his wife, Roberta Isakson, raised two children, one of whom is a Research Scientist in immunology and the other Director of exhibits at a New York City museum.  Bringing them up in the faith was a real challenge.
Over the years Paul has served as Eucharistic Minister he the parishes he attended.

Paul authored numerous articles, including two in the Catholic journal Commonweal, and one with Harry WINTER, “Religious Proselytization,” Proselytization and Communal Self-Determination in Africa (ed. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naiim, (NY: Orbis, 1999), pp. 20-50. 

Contributions to Justice and Peace

In 1978 he founded and directed for 27 years Columbia University’s Center, now Institute, for the Study of Human Rights.  Among its programs, the Human Rights Advocates Program, founded in 1989 and still continuing today, has brought to the university annual groups of human rights advocates from the Global South for four months to study under his direction and to make the contacts needed to support their work at home. On the trips to Washington, D.C., USA, they would meet with George McLEAN OMI’s students at the latter’s Center for the Research in Values and Philosophy Program.  Paul has also written on human rights and religion in one of McLean’s own publications. He has edited three collections of human rights documents and contributed to the Oxford Encyclopedia on Political Science and the Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East.

Legacy and Impact

In the 1990’s, Paul designed and directed a $1.8 million project to familiarize activists and government officials from the former Eastern Bloc with Western ideas about religious freedom. Four groups came to New York for four months study.  Three international conferences on religious freedom were held in Sofia, Budapest and Cracow.

Throughout his years at the Institute, Paul traveled extensively in Third World Countries, helping to establish programs in human rights education in Ghana, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Brazil, Liberia and Ecuador among others.  One of his ongoing concerns was Haiti, where he has lectured at Notre Dame University in Port au Prince and been impressed by the quality of its students. For the past twelve years he had taught and directed the Human Rights Studies Program at Barnard College, Columbia University.  Until shortly before his death, he taught every Tuesday and Thursday.


Paul cherished his Oblate Cross and made sure in April, 2020, that it was sent to our Scholasticate in San Antonio, TX, to be passed on to a future Oblate.  He also cherished his Oblate brethren, keeping in touch with his Swiss classmate, Jean Pierre Caloz, and visiting at the retirement center in Tewksbury, MA, Paul Daly, Will Harvey and myself, on March 8-9, 2020.

Paul’s unexpected death deprives Barnard College of an unequalled activist who trained so many experts in Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation.  But those thousands he did train will carry on his work.

May he Rest In Peace!