Religious Sister, Foundress and Educator

The Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loreto) was founded by MARY WARD (1585-1645), a dynamic English Catholic lady, in an age when Catholics were persecuted in England. Europe was torn by religious dissension and women’s rights were generally ignored.

At the age of 15 Mary felt called to the religious life. She entered a monastery of Poor Clares at Saint-Omer in Northern France, then in Spanish Flanders, as a lay sister in 1606 and the following year she founded a new monastery of the Order for English women at nearby Gravelines.

Establishment Of the Institute

Heritage However, she did not find herself called to the contemplative life and instead decided to dedicate herself to an active ministry, whilst still being a religious. This was considered most unusual at the time. At the age of twenty-four she found herself surrounded by a band of devoted companions determined to work under her guidance. In 1609, she left her homeland and with a small group of companions, she opened a school at St. Omer, Flanders where girls were taught reading, writing and sewing, as well as the principles of Christian life. This work expanded over much of Europe while she travelled there and later in England.

Although the venture was a great success, it was still controversial at the time, and it called forth censure and opposition as well as praise. Her idea was to enable women to do for the Church in their proper field, what men had done for it in the Society of Jesus. The idea has been realized over and over again in modern times, but in the 17th century it met with little encouragement. As previous foundresses who attempted such a way of life (e.g., St. Angela Merici) had learned, uncloistered religious women were repugnant to long-standing principles and traditions then prevalent. At that time, the work of religious women was confined to prayer, and such work as could be carried on within the walls of a monastery.

She established a religious order for women with very unusual features. Women religious were usually cloistered, under the jurisdiction of the local bishop. Mary Ward envisioned a very active order, working in the society at large for the education and upliftment of both rich and poor women. She asked for self-government under direct Papal jurisdiction. Mary Ward faced condemnation within the Catholic Church and suppression of her order, as her plans were far ahead of her times. However, she remained convinced that "women in time to come will do much".

Heritage There were other new startling differences between the new Institute and existing congregations of women; freedom from: enclosure, the obligation of choir, wearing a religious habit, and from the jurisdiction of the local bishop. Moreover her scheme was proposed at a time when there was division amongst English Catholics, and the fact that it borrowed so much from the Society of Jesus (itself an object of suspicion and hostility in many quarters) increased the mistrust. Measures recognized as acceptable in modern times were still novelties in hers, and her opponents called for a statement to be made by Church authorities. As early as 1615, the Jesuit theologians, Francisco Suarez and Leonardus Lessius who had been asked for their opinion on the new institute; both praised its way of life. Lessius held that local episcopal authorization sufficed to render it a religious body whereas Suárez maintained that its aim, organization, and methods being without precedent in the case of women, required the sanction of the Holy See.

Pope St. Pius (pope from 1566–1572) had declared solemn vows and strict papal enclosure to be essential to all communities of religious women. To this law the difficulties of Mary Ward were mainly due, when on the propagation of her institute in Flanders, Bavaria, Austria and Italy, she applied to the Holy See for formal approbation. The Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia, the Elector Maximilian I, and the Emperor Ferdinand II had welcomed the congregation to their dominions and together with such men as Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, Fra Domenico de Gesù, and Father Mutio Vitya, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, held the foundress in great esteem. Paul V, Gregory XV, and Urban VIII had shown her great kindness and spoken in praise of her work, and in 1629 she was allowed to plead her cause in person before the congregation of cardinals appointed by Urban to examine the situation.

The "Jesuitesses", as her congregation was designated by her opponents, were suppressed in 1630. Her work however was not destroyed. The Empress Catherine the Great of Russia welcomed her educational innovations to her realm, and there Mary Ward went, with the majority of her community. It revived gradually and developed, following the general lines of the first scheme.

At the express desire of Pope Urban, Mary went to Rome. It was there that she gathered around her the younger members of her religious family, under the supervision and protection of the Holy See. In 1639, with letters of introduction from Pope Urban to Queen Henrietta Maria, Mary returned to England and established herself in London. In 1642 she journeyed northward with her household and established a convent at Heworth, near York. She died in 1645 in St. Mary’s school, Heworth.

After her death there, her companions thought it best not to bury her body near the city center where she died because of the dangers of desecration. Instead they sought somewhere less conspicuous and found a happy solution by arranging for her to be buried in the Osbaldwick Churchyard, about a mile away. There, as the record says, "the vicar was honest enough to be bribed"! Her burial on 1 February 1645 was also attended by Anglicans. Despite the persecution of Roman Catholics at the time, Mary Ward was much admired and revered by many local people.

Plans drawn up by Mary Ward in the 17th century became the model for most modern women’s congregations. Meanwhile, Mary Ward’s own legacy had spread throughout Europe, where they were known as ‘the English Ladies’.

Pope Urban VIII said of her in 1637 ‘A woman of great prudence and of extraordinary courage and powers of mind, but what is much more…A holy and great servant of God.’

After her death Mary Ward’s plans were to be justified and official papal approbation of the Rules was granted by Pope Clement XI in 1703. Thus the ‘Institute of Mary’ was approved when he declared "Let women be governed by women".

This approbation rendered possible all the modern religious congregations of women engaged in active work for souls. The Institute again established in various parts of Europe especially in Bavaria, and its development continued throughout the eighteenth century

In 1745 Pope Benedict XIV approved the Constitutions of the Institute.

In 1877 the original Institute founded in the seventeenth century was confirmed by Pope Pius IX.

It was in 1909 that Mary Ward was publicly acknowledged as the Foundress of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Pope Pius X.

In 1921, the Archbishop of Westminster said, “It is a duty of gratitude to recall continually to the Catholics as well as the teaching orders of religious women throughout the world, that the existence of modern educational and charitable congregations such as we know them, was made possible by the supernatural foresight, the heroic perseverance and the terrible disappointments and sufferings of Mary Ward.”

Pope Pius XII called Mary Ward in 1951 ‘…That incomparable woman, which England, in her darkest and bloodiest time, gave to the Church.’ Pope John Paul II, in 1982, named her with the great saints of Northern Britain as ‘that extraordinary woman from Yorkshire.’

Today the Church looks on Mary Ward with respect, as a great woman of the Church. The present Pope, Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote of this in a letter in 1984: “With courage and decisiveness she opened the way in her own time for women to work in a new way in the Church....her freedom of spirit and her obedience together compose a message which will be significant in the Church today. It may be said, perhaps, that precisely now Mary Ward’s hour has come afresh.”

On 19th December 2009 Pope Benedict XVI declared Mary Ward as Venerable, and recognition was given to her as being a woman of heroic virtue.

Mary Ward was a leader of originality, faith and daring courage, whose inspiration continues to inspire young women worldwide, to serve the poor even today.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, one of Mary Ward’s spiritual daughter’s wrote of her as “Mary is God’s gift to the church and to the world."


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