Mary Ward was an early 17th century ‘Religious’ devoted to the service of God and a pioneer of women’s education.
Mary Ward lived in an age of religious intolerance in which deviation from whichever faith tradition was in the ascendant was savagely persecuted. She was born in 1585 in Yorkshire of staunchly Catholic stock. At this time, Catholics were persecuted in England but some did fight back: her two maternal uncles, John and Christopher Wright, were Gunpowder Plotters.
Moreover, within the Catholic Church at that time, women were considered to be weak and fickle creatures, capable only of the married state, or a strictly cloistered religious life. However, Mary felt that there was no difference between what women and men might achieve if they were given equal opportunities for education. This breath-taking vision was aptly summed up in her magnificently audacious ‘sound-bite’: “I hope in God it will be seen that women in time to come will do much.”
Mary herself possessed all the qualities of a true Yorkshire woman: courage, tenacity, deep faith, cheerfulness and a forthright common sense. In 1609 Mary dared to found an order of religious women modelled on the Society of Jesus, with a freedom from religious enclosure and a readiness for apostolic works which would put them at the direct service of the Church.
“I hope in God it will be seen that women in time to come will do much.”
She set up communities and schools in many cities in Europe, and her members were sent under cover on the English Mission to support the Catholic priests. This was 250 years before Miss Buss and Miss Beale laboured for women’s secondary education and at university.
With a few companions, she walked the 1500 miles from Flanders to Rome to present her plans for her Institute personally to three different Popes, and she appeared several times before the Cardinals to plead her cause. This adventurous step into the unfamiliar aroused fierce opposition from within the Catholic Church, and in 1631 Mary Ward’s Institute was suppressed by Pope Urban VIII, and she herself was described as a heretic and imprisoned for a time by the Inquisition because of her views which were radical for the time.
In 1639, some years after the Suppression, she returned to her native Yorkshire, and lived with a few of the original companions, outside York and died on January 30th 1645 still sticking by her convictions and her faith despite the two often having been in opposition to each other.