In 1585, as the political and religious storms of the English Reformation continued to blow, a baby girl, Mary, was born into a staunch Yorkshire Catholic family. When, at the age of 15, she became convinced that she had a religious vocation, her family and confessor resisted, insisting she should marry. Not to be denied, in 1605 she crossed the channel and joined the Poor Clares as a lay sister. Any sense of triumph however quickly descended into frustration. Mary Ward was called to religious life, but the shape her calling was to take was to emerge only gradually and at great personal cost.
The long journey of gestation was punctuated with moments of clarity. Recognising that as a lay sister her desire for a contemplative life was frustrated, she had left to found a Poor Clare convent specifically for English women fleeing abroad. In 1608, with the building work freshly completed, Mary was preparing to take her vows, when she perceived that she must instead move on; ‘some other thing I was to do, what or of what nature, I did not see, nor could guess, only that it was to be a good thing and what God willed’.
Her search was complicated by the recent insistence at the Council of Trent on strict enclosure for female Religious. Yet, Mary felt called not only to total and contemplative love of God but also to the concrete service of others, in the world. She had known and admired many Jesuits since childhood, when priests of the society had ministered in secret. In a further illumination Mary ‘heard distinctly, not by sound of voice, but intellectually understood’, the words ‘Take the Same of the Society’. The ‘good thing’ God willed was to be the foundation of a religious way of life for women modelled on the Jesuits, with freedom from religious enclosure and an emphasis on the direct service of people.
Strikingly ahead of their time, Mary Ward and her followers wore the regular dress of lay people, while they took on works and activities which until then had been the preserve of men. The first foundation, a small house in London, was followed by communities and schools throughout Europe. The times however were not entirely ripe for the gift of such a vocation. The disturbance of accepted norms won followers, but was soon generating whisperings of discontent. Mary and her ‘Jesuitesses’ were ‘wandering gossips’, and ‘the galloping girls’.
Mary sought recognition of her institute by the Church and in 1621 made her first journey to Rome, on foot, where she was received courteously, if cautiously, by Pope Gregory XV. However, misunderstanding and the complaints of her detractors culminated in the papal Bull Pastoralis Romani Pontificis, which formally suppressed the entire Institute. Along with seeing her life’s work destroyed, Mary also had to face the order for her arrest as ‘heretic, schismatic and rebel to the Holy Church’ and endure three months of imprisonment in a German convent. She came close to death in this period, yet even from prison Mary had counselled her companions to ‘be merry and doubt not our Master’.
In the latter years of her life she returned to England, where she died in 1645. She was buried in a protestant churchyard near York. The various offshoots of the original foundation were eventually recognised as religious institutions by the Church in 1749 – but only on the condition that they claimed no link with Mary Ward. It was only in 1909 that Pope Pius X granted the sisters permission to call her their foundress.
More recently, she has started to receive the recognition she deserves. In 1952 Pius XII described Mary as ‘...that incomparable woman, given to the church by Catholic England in her darkest and bloodiest hour’. Her life, so frequently misunderstood and marked by suffering, was like a seed thrust into deep soil which was gradually able to ‘spring forth’ in the centuries which followed. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI granted her the title ‘Venerable’.