Ward, Mary (1586–1645)

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Ward, Mary (1586–1645)

English nun and founder of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a model for modern Catholic women's institutes . Born on February 2, 1586 (some sources cite January 23, 1585), in Yorkshire, England; died on January 20, 1645, in Hewarth, Yorkshire, England; daughter of Marmaduke Ward and Ursula (Wright) Ward.

Born in England in 1586 to prosperous parents, Mary Ward grew up in the Catholic faith that would become the focus of her life's work. Since Catholic religious orders were forbidden in Britain after Anglicanism became the state church, she entered a Poor Clares convent in the Netherlands in 1606 at the age of 20. Unable to submit to a cloistered existence, she left the convent to establish a new order based upon that of the Jesuits, which augmented a contemplative life with good works. Calling it the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM), she and her followers established a new community for Englishwomen near Grave-lines in northern France in 1607, and dedicated themselves to the founding of free schools for women. Her efforts opposed church restrictions regarding women religious, which forbade nuns from leaving the convent for any reason. It also differed in that it functioned without a choir, religious habits, or diocesan supervision.

In 1624, Pope Urban VIII rejected the plan Ward had submitted to him and effectively suppressed the society, closing the IBVM in Rome. Nevertheless, interest continued to grow, and, because the sisters were not easily identified by their dress, they were able to assist parishioners without drawing attention from the government. Although Ward experienced tremendous persecution during this time, the IBVM was able to extend its activities throughout France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Austria, and England. Resistant to the institute on the basis of its lack of enclosure, a papal bull dissolved the IBVM, and Ward was imprisoned for heresy in 1631. In 1637, she returned to England, and in 1639 the pope granted her permission to form a modified order there. She continued her work in Catholic education and moved to Yorkshire in the 1640s, dying in 1645. She was buried in Osbaldwick churchyard near York.

The rule of the institute she had founded was approved in 1703 by Pope Clement XI. In 1877, Pope Pius IX fully restored it as the Institute of Mary, and modern Catholic women's institutes use it as a model. Officially recognized by the Catholic Church in 1909 as the founder of the IBVM, Ward was also acknowledged in 1951 by Pope Pius XII for her religious work in England during the 17th century.


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Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland

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