Ward, Mary

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WARD, MARY . Mary Ward (15851645) was the founder of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, earlier known as the "English Ladies." She is recognized for pioneering the active, unenclosed life for nuns within the Roman Catholic Church, and her institute was the first systematic attempt to adopt for women the Jesuit missionary purpose and governance, with its emphasis on mobility and centralized structure under a superior general answerable directly to the pope. Traditionally, and in canon law, the members of women's religious orders were enclosed and monastic, a definition that was reinforced by the Council of Trent (15451563) as part of its reform of Catholicism. Mary Ward's was not the only contemporary initiative to challenge the status quo, but it was the most far-reaching and controversialand remained so long after her death. She was convinced that "women in time to come will do much," but it was not until the aftermath of the French Revolution, in response to a powerful female movement to revitalize Catholicism, that the centralized active model was approved for women, and her vision was fully realized.

Born into a family of minor landed gentry in the northeast of England, Mary Ward was educated at home, where she learned Latin and showed a gift for modern European languages. The Wards belonged to the persecuted English Roman Catholic minority, and Mary was taught her faith by the Jesuit chaplains secretly employed in their households, and by female relatives, several of whom served prison sentences for persistent nonconformity to the established Church of England. A culture of heroism for their faith was evident within the Ward kinship network, most notably when three of her uncles died resisting arrest for their part in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 to blow up the Houses of Parliament in an attempt at the political restoration of Catholicism.

In the same year Mary rejected a proposal of marriage favored by her father and her confessor in order to pursue a religious calling. She traveled to Stt Omer in Flanders, first joining the Poor Clares and then in 1607 to 1608 successfully founding a new Poor Clare convent in Gravelines for Englishwomen. She seemed settled, but in 1609 she experienced the first of a series of mystical illuminations, which she described as "seeing intellectually," that determined her subsequent decisions: "there happened to me a thing of such a nature that I know not, and never did know, how to explain. It appeared wholly Divine, and came with such force that it annihilated and reduced me to nothing" (Wright, 1997, p. 3). Understanding that she was to leave the convent to undertake some work willed for her by God, she returned to London. After a second illumination she gathered a group of young women of similar social background who trusted her leadership. In 1610, with the support of the Jesuits and the local bishop, they opened a quasi-religious house in St. Omer giving instruction and teaching girls evangelical activism and prowress. A third illumination in 1611, reinforced by a fourth in 1615, led Mary to understand that her community should adopt, with some adaptations, the constitutions of the Society of Jesus, their Formula Instituti. The vision made clear to her that the Society would not approve, as indeed it could not, since its founder had forbidden it to direct the work of nuns.

After 1615 Mary developed her institute, writing constitutions and forming its members as teachers and domestic missioners for work in England. Between 1616 and 1628 it expanded, attracting support from leading churchmen and nobility. New houses and schools were opened across the continent: in Liège (1616), Cologne and Triers (16201621), Rome (1622), Naples (1623), Perugia (1624), Munich (1627), and Vienna (1627). At the same time it attracted a good deal of hostility, and petitions were received in Rome from Jesuits, English clergy suspicious of the Jesuits, and individuals scandalized by their boldness and public life. New names"Jesuitesses" and "galloping" or "gadding girls"were added to that of "English Ladies," and they were accused of usurping priestly roles.

From the outset Mary sought papal approval for the institute. In 1621 she made a journey of 1,000 miles on foot from Brussels to Rome to present her constitutions to Pope Gregory XV, who, impressed with her character, referred the documents for consultation. But by 1628 the controversy had damaged the institute beyond recovery, so that Mary's re-presentation of her case to Pope Urban VIII in 1629 could not avert condemnation. Individual houses of the institute were firstly warned and from 1628 onwards suppressed by the Spanish Inquisition, culminating in the promulgation of the papal bull Pastoralis Romani Pontificis in January 1631 emphatically suppressing the whole institute and leading to Mary's imprisonment on heresy charges.

Although Mary was cleared of heresy by Urban and continued to live in Rome with companions, the remainder of her life was dominated by ill health. In 1637 she returned to England, where she died close to her Yorkshire home on January 20, 1645. Loyal companions slowly restored the institute from a base of strength in Munich under the protection of Maximilian of Bavaria. In 1749 Pope Benedict XIV issued a landmark judgement, Quamvis Justo, approving the restored institute's members as active unenclosed religious, provided they worked under local bishops and ceased to claim that their institute had been founded by Mary Ward. It was a further 160 years before another pope, Pius X, rehabilitated her as founder of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Interest in Mary Ward grew during the twentieth century and, in the context of changing attitudes, her reputation grew to the point where in 1982 John Paul II extolled this "remarkable Yorkshire woman a pioneer of the active unenclosed congregations for women."

See Also

Nuns, article on Christian Nuns.


Chambers, Mary C. E. The Life of Mary Ward (15851645), edited by Henry Coleridge. 2 vols. London, 18821885. The biographical work, written by a member of the institute and based on original archival research, that played a crucial role in rehabilitating Mary Ward.

Orchard, Mary Emmanuel, ed. Till God Will: Mary Ward Through Her Writings, introduced by James Walsh. London, 1985.

Peters, Henriette. Mary Ward. A World in Contemplation, translated by Helen Butterworth. Leominster, U.K., 1994. A comprehensive and detailed biographical study that synthesizes all previous scholarship and draws on new sources.

Wright, Mary. Mary Ward's Institute: The Struggle for Identity. Darlinghurst, Australia, 1997. An accessible history of the canon law dimension of Mary Ward's initiative containing all the significant papal documents and covering the later history of her institute and its branches.

Susan O'Brien (2005)