Mary Ward was a rebel, who challenged the status-quo to seek wider opportunities for women.
Born in 1585, Mary Ward grew up in Yorkshire, as part of a staunchly Catholic family in an age of religious intolerance. In England, the Catholic Church was under persecution and two of Mary's uncles, Christopher and John Wright were part of the Gunpowder Plot. In 1605, Mary left England as a religious refugee, crossing the Channel to St. Omer, in the Spanish Netherlands, where she joined the Order of Poor Clares.
In the Catholic Church, at that time, women were viewed as weak creatures - destined for marriage or a strictly cloistered religous life. Through her experience as a Poor Clare, Mary began to challenge the limitations placed on women by the Church.
She developed a revolutionary vision, that with equal access to education women and men could achieve the same goals. She believed in the potential of women, that in "it will be seen that women in time to come will do much."
Mary’s key aim was to progress “the education of girls and other works congruent to the needs of the times.” She saw how important women were in families and communities. To take their rightful place in society, Mary believed that young women needed to claim skills that were rightfully theirs. In Mary Ward Schools, girls began to learn languages, and to engage in drama and debate.
Mary had the qualities of a true Yorkshire woman: courage, tenacity, deep faith, cheerfulness and common sense. She shared her ideas with like-minded women, often called ‘the circle of friends’. In 1609 Mary founded a new order of religious women modelled on the Society of Jesus. Mary's order offered women freedom from religious enclosure and a readiness for apostolic works in direct service of the Church.
As companions joined Mary’s cause, schools were founded across Europe and members were sent under cover on the English Mission to support the priests.
In 1621, Mary and four companions walked 1500km from Flanders to Rome to seek direct approval from the Pope for their work. On arrival in Rome, they presented a petition, plus letters of recommendation from houses and schools across Europe.
This ambitious step caused fierce opposition in the Church. In 1628, Pope Urban VIII acted to suppress Mary Ward's work, issuing a papal order to close all houses and schools. Mary wrote to Sisters in Cologne and the Netherlands, reassuring them that houses would not close. This was deemed to be heretical and Mary was imprisoned for over two months in 1630.
Returning to Yorkshire, in 1639, Mary began again and despite poor health and finances, she opened a school. She died in 1645, still committed to both her faith and her convictions.
Despite schools closing in her lifetime, Mary Ward’s vision flourished after her death. Her companions continued her work. Eventually they gained formal recognition from the church as the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary – on the condition that Mary Ward was not named as their founder.
In 1909, Mary Ward was finally recognised as the founder by Pope Pius X and in 1951, Pope Pius XII paid tribute to Mary as a ‘incomparable woman’. Finally, in 2009, Pope Benedict declared Mary Ward ‘Venerable’.
Today, there are almost 200 Mary Ward Schools worldwide and Mary's order has about 4,000 Sisters in two branches – the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Loreto sisters, and the Congregation of Jesus.
In our school
We proudly place the 12 Characteristics of a Mary Ward School at the heart of our forward-looking approach to education. The life of Mary Mard provides a positive role-model to all our students and via her legacy we enjoy connections with schools in Nepal, India and Zimbabwe.
We also offer a Mary Ward scholarship to students who show commitment to our school ethos through their actions in spirituality, religion, work for justice, charity, chaplaincy and community.