As Mary Ward neared death in late 1644, her close friend Winifred Wigmore embarked on a long and dangerous trek to London, seeking news of the sisters who remained in various spots across Europe. Winifred made the journey through icy Christmas weather, through civil war militias, to bring back the news Mary so desperately wanted to hear. On 30 January 1645, as her death was imminent, the few sisters in York were summoned to Mary’s room. Winifred said: “We are all here, Mary”. Mary replied: “Would that you were all here”– voicing her wish for her companions who had been scattered by the Suppression. As Mary Wright indicated in her recent article, over the intervening centuries, groups of Mary’s followers became separated.
Echoing Mary Ward’s desire for union, to be gathered as one group, Sisters from both halves of Mary Ward’s company today (Congregatio Jesu (CJ) and IBVM-Loreto) are moving towards the union of hearts and minds that grounds the life of religious congregations. We share her memory. We share the Ignatian Constitution that she saw as non-negotiable for our community and mission. We share a spirituality shaped by these two deep roots. Many small encounters over the past 50 years are threads being woven into a union process. Shared friendships, shared resources, shared conferences, visits to each other’s communities, presence at each other’s significant events, shared missions, shared community, shared school visits. Now, despite the pandemic, we are in the process of formalizing this union.
Our two leadership teams asked every Sister to state: did she want Union or not? Over 90% of those able to respond affirmed that this was their desire, but such hopes also need faces and real-life contact. The Sisters were grouped into four geographical regions: Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Differences across cultures are immense; approaches to many day-to-day realities have been shaped by varied histories; no region is united by a common language. Someone from each province was tasked to meet with other ‘ambassadors for union’ in her region and explore ways to connect the sisters across that region.
Our region, happily named after the same Winifred Wigmore, is by far the biggest group – almost 800 Mary Ward Women! Over 500 from the Indian subcontinent, five separate CJ provinces in India and Nepal, and one IBVM province across India and Bangladesh!! Korea has over 200 CJ women in five different countries, and Australia and South East Asia have the smallest number with just over 80 in four different countries. How to connect? Zoom has come to our rescue. In small groups of eight or nine, we are having the equivalent of “meeting over a cup of coffee!” Just sharing who we are, what issues are shaping our part of the world, what our ministries are etc. It’s a small beginning, but individuals can continue to connect if they wish through email and WhatsApp. Some small groups of like interest are forming – musicians are leading the way here.
This work is far removed from the juridical process of formally uniting the two groups. Our task is to build on the openness that exists, to ensure Union is not just a top-down movement. We believe the Holy Spirit is urging us forward to imagine what Mary Ward’s vision might bring to the world if we work together. Her spirituality based in friendship with God, her trust even in the hardest times, her insight that ‘freedom, justice and sincerity’ are critical virtues, and her focus on the equality of women, can offer something much needed in our church and world.