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.
Mary Ward, who founded the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loreto Sisters) was born in England at the time of Queen Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare.
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.
Mary Ward was born on 23 January 1585 to Ursula (Wright) and Marmaduke Ward. She was the eldest of six children and in a staunchly Catholic family living in Yorkshire, northern England.
These were troubled times in England. It was a period when society could not envisage peaceful co-existence between Catholics and Protestants. The English government imposed harsh anti-Catholic laws. Yorkshire was a hot-bed of Catholic resistance.
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.
Due to family circumstances, her own health and later, her parents’ hope of encouraging a good marriage, Mary lived much of her young life away from parents and siblings. At the age of five, she went to live with her grandmother who had spent fourteen years in prison for her faith.
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.
When Mary was about 14 years old, a young Catholic nobleman became a suitor for Mary’s hand in marriage. She refused him and declared her desire to enter Religious Life.
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.
Late in 1605, Mary embarked on her dream of religious life. A religious refugee, she crossed the Channel secretly in a small boat to avoid government spies.
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.
Mary returned to England where she worked with Catholic families who were caught in the struggle between loyalty to the faith and loyalty to the king (James 1st at this time).
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.”
Mary was beginning to see that holiness did not require flight from the world. She shared her experience with several women in her extended family circle, all of whom were open to doing something more for the faith in England. These early companions are sometimes called the “circle of friends”, a reference which builds on this early painting depicting them seated in a circle.
In 1610, they decided to leave England, establish a base in St. Omer and pray for guidance as to their future directions. Here some began educating girls, with a school for English boarders and one for poorer local girls.
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.
In 1611, when Mary was recovering from a serious attack of the measles, she heard intellectually, the words ‘Take the same as the Society’, meaning to take the rule and way of life of the Jesuits, who had pioneered a new form of religious life, not bound by cloister. These words brought her great peace and assurance, and yet at the same time she knew taking up this call would lead to a serious confrontation with Church Law, which forbad religious women to leave their monastery grounds, and the Jesuits, who were forbidden by rule to have a female branch of their society.
Mary believed this insight from God meant that women religious could be active in spreading the Gospel.
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.
In her search for clarity for the spiritual foundations of her newly formed Institute, Mary was led to deepen this understanding that God is found in the ordinary events and experiences of life.
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.
With an increasing clarity about this new form of Religious Life, Mary documented the aim of the Institute – ‘the education of girls and other works congruent to the needs of the times’.
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.
In 1621, Mary and four companions decided to seek approval directly from the Pope. Because of their poverty, they walked more than 1500 kilometres from Liege to Rome in winter. Dressed as pilgrims, they passed through war-torn German states, crossed the Alps and arrived in Rome on Christmas Day. The next day, Mary presented her petition to the Pope along with many letters of recommendation which praised the schools and houses she and her companions had been operating within European states for over ten years.
Mary Ward’s pilgrim hat and shoes
Malicious gossip and misrepresentation had preceded her arrival and already alienated a number of key cardinals. The Jesuit Superior General had also received complaints from other Jesuits about these ‘Jesuitesses’. Mary’s request was passed to cardinals and Vatican bureaucracy, and the long period of waiting began. Mary and her companions opened a school in Rome to show the Church authorities that they were both religious and effective in promoting the Gospel. This was to no avail. Their school was closed down by Church officials despite evidence of its value.
The influence of Mary and her companions continued to spread, and so did the antagonism of the powerful Church authorities.
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.
Hearing rumours of moves to close houses in Cologne and the Netherlands, Mary sent a letter to the sisters, saying this decree did not come from the Pope, because she had seen him recently and he made no mention of any such plan. This was construed as disobedience, and in 1630 Mary was arrested and imprisoned in the Anger convent as a ‘heretic’. She was in prison from 7 February to 14 April and was close to death through her ill health.
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.
In September 1637, Mary with two companions, was finally allowed to begin her long journey back to England. Because of wars in Germany, they detoured through France.
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’s health had deteriorated further; by late 1644 it was clear death was near. During these last days she was able to name Barbara Babthorpe as her successor. Barbara would take on the responsibility of continuing to gather the small band together and plan for the future. To the end, Mary retained her conviction that this was God’s call. She consoled and encouraged those around her. She urged them to treasure God’s vocation that it be ‘constant, efficacious and loving’.
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.
Mary Ward’s companions continued to educate girls, and despite orders to burn all records of Mary Ward’s role in their lives, they repeatedly asked for recognition as a religious congregation. This came in gradual steps, but always retained the proviso that they were not to claim Mary Ward as their founder.
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.