Loreto College St Albans

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Mary Ward

Mary Ward23 January 1585 - 30 January 1645

Mary Ward was born into an upper class catholic family; she was the eldest daughter of Marmaduke Ward and Ursula Wright. Even from childhood, Mary Ward knew religious persecution as she grew up in Reformation England, where to practice the Catholic faith could result in prison or death. Her grandmother was arrested and imprisoned for 14 years. She received a good classical education within the home environment. Music and art appealed to her, and her speaking and singing gave her much pleasure. She spoke and read several languages, including Latin. Like many Englishwomen from the higher classes, Mary Ward enjoyed much greater freedom and independence than was available to women in most Catholic countries at that time.

It is therefore not surprising that Mary Ward was open to new ideas. From her earliest years Mary Ward was a deeply spiritual person. As a young girl she listened to stories of religious life and, although such a way of life was impossible in England, she was determined to travel to Europe to become a nun, rejecting several eligible men who sought to marry her.

Schools for rich and poor

At age 15 Mary Ward left England to enter a convent of Poor Clares in the Netherlands as a lay sister in 1606. The following year she founded a house for Englishwomen at Gravelines, but not finding herself called to the contemplative life, she resolved to devote herself to active work. She returned to England and at the age of twenty-four she found herself surrounded by a band of devoted companions determined to labour under her guidance; her cousin Barbara Babthorpe, Mary Poyntz and Winifred Wigmore. In 1609 they established themselves as a religious community at St.Omer, and opened schools for rich and poor.

Mary worked in disguise to preserve the Catholic Faith in England before founding a community of active sisters in France. She and her companions educated young women, helped persecuted and imprisoned Catholics, and spread the word of God in places priests could not go. The Sisters lived and worked openly on the continent, but secretly in England, to nurture the faith by responding to need and opportunity. The work of religious women was then confined to prayer; all other works were expected to be carried out only within the walls of the convent. However Mary Ward promoted wider female education and values such as freedom from enclosure, from the obligation of choir and from wearing a religious habit. They formed the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary and their reputation spread throughout Europe as more schools were opened. Her delicate social sense caused her to insist all must be treated with the same courteous charity, including her least important employees and the poor. The Sisters' work was to include the children of the poor as well as the daughters of rich families entrusted to their care. The venture was a success, but it was a novelty, and it called forth censure and opposition as well as praise. Many who knew Mary Ward, from bishops and monarchs to simple people she served, admired her courage and generosity. She traveled Europe on foot, in dire poverty, frequently ill, founding schools in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In 1621 with Winifred Wigmore and others, Mary journeyed 1500 miles to Rome, crossing the Alps on foot in the winter.


However enemies were now plotting against Mary. Criticized for her efforts to expand the role of women religious in spreading the faith, Mary was imprisoned by Church officials who called her a dangerous heretic. And, an unheard of thing for a woman in those days, she fearlessly faced a Congregation of Cardinals in order to defend her work in a long, well thought-out speech in Latin. Although she was zealous for the Church, and was repeatedly imprisoned for her faith, she kept herself free from fanaticism and continued to appeal to the Pope, though her health was now poor. Mary was then arrested by the Inquisition as a heretic. A Papal order was issued to destroy the Institute and her schools were closed down. Her work was destroyed and her Sisters scattered by her clerical enemies in whom even the Pope, Urban VIII, found "malice and folly." Never abandoning her trust in God's guidance, she died near York in 1645 during the Cromwellian Civil War. To the end she trusted totally that what God had asked of her would be accomplished in the future and her last words were ‘Jesus Jesus Jesus.’ Mary Ward taught by example and words. Act "without fear... in quiet confidence that God will do his will in the confusion." Her unwavering fidelity to "that which God would" was nourished by deep contemplative prayer. To Mary, God was the "Friend of all friends." She lived her fidelity with cheerfulness and a passion for the truth.


Not until 1909 did the Church recognize Mary Ward as the founder of the IBVM. Much later Pope Pius XII acknowledged her as a pioneer for women's role in the church ministry outside the cloister. In her autobiography, Mary Ward promised her sisters and those who come to know her through them: "All I shall be able to perform in heaven or on earth, they may freely challenge as their due and my promise."

Sister Mary Theresa

By the mid-seventeenth century, small groups of Mary Ward's followers, known in Europe as the 'English Ladies', were to be found in Munich and Augsburg and later, on the invitation of members of the Catholic gentry, in London and York. It was to the foundation in York that in 1814, Frances Ball, a young Irish woman, was sent to live with and learn from the IBVM sisters. In 1821 Sister Mary Theresa returned to Dublin with two novices to establish a convent and school there.

The birth of Loreto

In 1822 she opened the first house of the Institute in Ireland, in Rathfarnham House, four miles from Dublin. She called it “Loretto House” (the spelling of which changed at the end of the nineteenth century), a name that was to be used for all the subsequent foundations that came from Ireland, and which resulted in the sisters of the Irish Branch of the IBVM being popularly known as “Loreto Sisters”. Mother Theresa was a woman of deep spirituality and significant administrative ability. Her energies were devoted to the establishment of many convent schools in Ireland and also in India (1842), Mauritius (1844), Gibraltar (1845), Canada (1847) and England (1851). She died at Loreto, Dalkey, on May 19th 1861.

Please click this link to see an article about Mary Ward published by the Independent:

Mary Ward - The First Sister of Feminism