Mary Ward: Leader, Heretic, Saint

MaryWardWhen I was a senior at Loretto High school, a Catholic girls school run by the IBVM sisters in Sacramento, I was awarded the Mary Ward Leadership medal for “outstanding commitment to social justice.” I was honored by the award. It had never been given before. But I really didn’t know who Mary Ward was. Since then I’ve learned a little more and am oddly comforted by her story.

Mary Ward has just reached the first step toward official church sainthood (she’s “venerable” right now) and there’s a celebration of her at Westminster Cathedral next weekend. The IBVM’s (Ward is their foundress) are celebrating their 400th anniversary. Here’s a little exerpt about her life:

Mary Ward was a Yorkshire woman who, at a time of severe repression of Roman Catholics in England, felt called by God to found a congregation of religious sisters on the model of the Jesuits (Society of Jesus). Her vision was for a non-enclosed order of religious sisters who might serve their faith actively as educators and missionaries across Europe, set free from the restrictions of monastic life as the Jesuits were. In an era when women were considered intellectually and morally incapable of doing good for themselves, let alone for others, Mary soon came into conflict with the Papal authorities.

Having founded a community of sisters in St Omer in Flanders in 1609, Mary was initially allowed to open schools across Europe without restriction and continued to secretly assist persecuted Catholics in Protestant England. Her Order of ‘English Ladies’ considered itself directly answerable to the Pope without other intervening male authority. But when Mary travelled to Rome to seek Papal recognition for her congregation of so-called ‘Jesuitesses’, Pope Urban VIII  ruled against her refusal of enclosure and imprisoned her as a heretic.

Despite centuries of struggle in a Church and a world unprepared for Mary Ward’s pioneering vision, her sisters today are fulfilling her dream of apostolic service and opportunities for women all over the world.

Read more about her here.

Mary Ward’s birthday is January 23rd.

Born in 1585, into a family of Yorkshire recusants, outlaw Catholics refusing to conform to the state religion, she was condemned to death in London for her work among underground Catholics. Mary fled to the continent with a group of companions in 1609, believing herself called to start a religious order for women modelled on the mobility and missionary focus of the Jesuits, while remaining independent from them. This contradicted the Council of Trent’s insistence that religious women be strictly enclosed.

In a society and a church unprepared for such emancipation, she taught that ‘there is no such difference between men and women, that women may not do great things’. Dubbed ‘The English Ladies’, Mary Ward and her sisters founded communities and schools across Europe. Mary walked over the Alps to Rome amid the Thirty Years War and outbreaks of plague, to present her new plan to the Pope. Her repeated attempts to persuade him failed, and the fledgling congregation was suppressed as a risk to the moral and intellectual fragility of women. Mary was imprisoned as a ‘heretic, rebel and schismatic’ in 1631. She died in York in 1645 during the English Civil War surrounded by her few remaining companions, who continued to live the dream of an unenclosed apostolic order for women.

It took nearly 300 years to gain final Papal approval of Mary Ward’s plan. Two branches of the order now exist, living under the full constitutions of the Society of Jesus; the Congregation of Jesus and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as Loreto sisters.

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