The Life of Mary Ward
This presentation of the life of Mary Ward is based on extracts from The Gift of Mary Ward written by Christine Burke ibvm which gives an overview of the life and work of Mary Ward.
She became one of the greatest English women of the seventeenth century
– a courageous innovator, a mystic, a holy woman and an inspirational leader.
Shortly after her death, her life story was depicted through a series of paintings. Some have been used to help tell her story here.
The Ward family was part of a network of families committed to keeping the Catholic faith alive in England despite extra taxes, random house searches, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment.
Later, Mary moved to her cousins, the Bapthorpes, at Osgodby. Their mother had spent five years in prison. A strict atmosphere of prayer and religious instruction characterised this home, as well as the study of languages.
While her parents and spiritual advisors urged Mary to marry a Catholic in order to strengthen the Catholic resistance, for six years Mary stood firm in her resolve to become a religious.
On arriving in St. Omer, in the Spanish Netherlands, Mary was advised by a Jesuit to go to the convent of Poor Clare sisters. Here she worked as an ‘outsister’ – one who would beg for food for the enclosed sisters. She realised that this was not the life she had anticipated and so after one year she left to establish an English-speaking Poor Clare convent.
However, after a few months, Mary understood in a moment of extraordinary prayer, that she was not called to be a Poor Clare, yet she still believed that God was calling her to Religious Life. After a few more months of discernment she left this convent she had founded in the latter half of 1609.
One morning after a time of prayer, Mary was doing her hair in front of her mirror when she had an overpowering sense of the Glory of God. This insight was so strong it convinced her that God wanted something different for her, something more for the glory of God. “I did not see what the assured good thing would be, but the glory of God which was to come through it showed itself so inexplicably and abundantly as to fill my soul.”
Others of the company returned to England in secret to continue the work among those wavering in their allegiance to the Pope and the sacraments. In particular, Mary recognised the influence of women in families and communities and the importance of equipping them for this role by providing educational opportunities.
The Jesuit rule gave her a model for apostolic religious who could go where the need was greatest, as opposed to a monastic model of prayer and work within a monastery.
Mary and her companions were already in active ministry. She had imbibed deeply the spirituality of St. Ignatius to ‘find God in all things, and to work for the greater good.’
She believed women also were capable of a contemplative stance in the midst of activity.
On All Saints’ Day 1615, Mary, who was on her annual retreat, had a strong and moving experience in prayer of the wonder of a person whose inner core is open to God – a person she called a “just soul”. Such a person would not be trapped by earthly things, but would be free to commit herself fully to whatever works needed to be addressed.
She saw that true saintliness can be found in freedom, relating back to God all the varied experiences of daily life, and trusting that God can work through and with people to bring fullness of life. This experience reaffirmed for her the importance of each one of her company keeping their hearts grounded in a loving relationship with God.
Over time, more women joined Mary’s group. At the invitation of supportive Bishops and members of European royalty, houses and schools were opened in Liege, Cologne and Treves, and a novitiate established in Liege.
Mary Ward’s pilgrim hat and shoes
In April 1628 the decision was made by the Pope and Cardinals not just to withhold approval, but to suppress the congregation.
With this decree, all houses were to be closed, and the women sent home. They were no longer to be recognised as sisters.
However, this decree was not communicated to the sisters, only to Vatican representatives in each country.
When freed by order of the Pope, when sufficiently recovered, Mary travelled again to Rome to plead her innocence. She was acquitted of heresy and permitted to live in a house near St. Mary Major’s, Rome, with a few of the women who had managed to reach the safety of Rome after the closure of their convents. The Bull of Suppression was only made public in 1631.
The heartbreaking journey took Mary through towns like Liege and St. Omer where once her community had flourished and now only a few women remained, eking out their existence. They arrived in England on 20 May 1639.
Despite poor health, non-existent finances, and the cloud of failure surrounding all she had hoped for, Mary opened a school. Because of the civil war between King Charles I and the Parliament, the Sisters were forced to travel north to Yorkshire.
Mary’s small band was part of the turmoil of refugees from outlying areas moved into the walled city. Following the defeat of the King’s forces they returned to devastated houses and fields in Hewarth.
Mary Ward died on 30 January 1645. Despite laws forbidding the burial of Catholics in a churchyard, her companions say they found ‘… a Minister honest enough to be bribed …’ who would allow her body to rest in the grounds of a small church in Osbaldwick, Yorkshire.
Her gravestone reads: To love the poor, persevere in the same, live die and rise with them was all the aim of Mary Ward who having lived 60 years and 8 days died 20 (sic) January 1645.
In 1909 Pope Pius X finally recognised Mary as the founder of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary;
In 1951, Pope Pius XII paid tribute to Mary Ward as ‘that incomparable woman, given to the church by Catholic England in her darkest and bloodiest hour’; and
In 1984, Cardinal Ratzinger stated ‘With courage and decisiveness she opened the way in her own time for women to work in a new way in the Church….It may be said, perhaps, that precisely now Mary Ward’s hour has come’.
In 2009, Pope Benedict declared Mary Ward ‘Venerable’.
Today, members of Mary Ward’s Congregations, co-workers and thousands of students and friends are found in 45 countries across the world.