She was a pilgrim, a mystic, an indefatigable traveller, a woman of great courage and perseverance, of good humour and unshakable integrity. She was a pioneer of apostolic religious life for women in the seventeenth century and, while her efforts faced serious opposition in her lifetime, today thousands of religious in the Congregation of Jesus and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary look to her as their foundress.
Mary Ward was born in Yorkshire in 1585, into a Catholic family, and into an England torn apart by religious strife. Pope Pius V’s excommunication of Elizabeth I in 1570 had resulted in a more intense persecution of Catholics by the English state, and now being a recusant meant facing fines, imprisonment, confiscation of property or even death. Mary Ward grew up moving home often, often living with extended family as her parents tried to escape the punishing fines for refusing to attend Anglican church services. The context in which she grew up was marked by a deep faith and persevering resistance which would become part of her own character: her grandmother, Ursula Wright, with whom she lived for several years as a child, had spent time in prison for her faith, and two of her maternal uncles, John and Christopher Wright, were among the Gunpowder Plotters.
Mary Ward felt herself drawn to religious life from a young age, and escaped to the continent to enter the Poor Clares at St Omer in 1606. There she was advised to become an extern sister, which meant she was excluded from the nuns’ normal life of prayer and contemplation, and instead found herself begging door-to-door for the enclosed sisters. She soon discerned that this was not the life to which God was calling her and, in 1607, she left the life of an extern sister and founded a Poor Clare monastery for English exiles at Gravelines. There she settled into the contemplative life with great contentment and, years later, would describe this time as one of real happiness.
God had other plans, however, and in the spring of 1609, Mary received a vision in which it was revealed to her that she was not to remain a Poor Clare, but must do ‘some other thing’ -as yet unclear- which would be greatly to the glory of God. This meant uprooting herself once again and facing heavy criticism, but she nevertheless returned to England and worked in the Catholic underground in London for six months. In autumn 1609, she returned to the continent with a small group of companions. The next few years saw Mary Ward and her fledgling religious community working in both St Omer and in the Catholic underground in London, undertaking apostolic work dressed as ordinary laywomen, encouraging the beleaguered Catholic community, teaching, and visiting Catholics in prison. (During this period the Archbishop of Canterbury is said to have complained that Mary was doing more harm than ‘six or seven Jesuits’!) Already, Mary Ward was pushing the boundaries of what was expected of women, and pioneering an active form of women’s religious life; already, too, opposition from some within the Church was mounting.
In 1611 the precise nature of the ‘some other thing’ that God desired became clear, as Mary received a second insight in which God instructed her and her companions to ‘take the same of the Society’, that is, to take on the way of life of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) insofar as it was possible for women. The following years saw the early companions beginning to pursue this founding vision in St Omer, receiving a mixture of help and opposition from both the Jesuits themselves and the local ecclesial authorities. A third founding vision of a ‘Just Soul’ in 1615 gave Mary Ward further understanding of the nature of the religious congregation she was called to found, and the virtues needed by those who would join it.
Mary Ward and her companions founded a second house in Liege in 1617, and in 1619 they set out on the first of several journeys across Europe on foot, founding houses and schools in Cologne and Trier before arriving in Rome in 1621, where Mary had an audience with Pope Gregory XV to ask official approval for the Institute. Despite reports of the good work being done by the Institute, the Pope and the cardinals appointed to assess it could not countenance unenclosed apostolic religious life for women. For her part, Mary Ward could not compromise on what she had received as God’s will, and a tussle ensued during which the Italian houses she had founded in Naples and Perugia were closed down, followed by the school in Rome. Undeterred, Mary set off on another journey, founding houses and a school in Munich and Vienna in 1627, and Pressburg (now Bratislava) in 1628. But rumours spread by Mary’s detractors and machinations in Rome continued and, after the successive closure of the houses in Liege, St Omer, Cologne and Trier, January 1631 saw the publication of a papal bull officially suppressing the Institute. Mary Ward was imprisoned in Munich as a heretic.
Over the following years, and with failing health, Mary sought to clear her name and salvage what she could of her life’s work. She was cleared of heresy in 1632, and received the blessing of the Pope as she lay, apparently dying, in 1637. In some places her sisters were able to continue teaching in their schools as laypeople, in others, they continued in other forms of apostolic work. Mary and her closest companions returned to London in 1639, and worked there before returning to Yorkshire in 1642 as the English Civil War ignited around them. Mary Ward died in Heworth, just outside York, in 1645.
Although Mary Ward died with her life’s work almost completely ruined, her founding vision survived, inspiring generations of women to enter what eventually became known as the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM). In 2003, the Roman branch of the IBVM changed its name to the Congregation of Jesus, reflecting Mary Ward’s desire that her foundation should be known by the name of Jesus. Today, her sisters in the CJ and IBVM number over two thousand, and work in forty-five countries worldwide.