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Keeping Mary Ward’s legacy alive

Keeping Mary Ward’s legacy alive

Mary Ward is a name that holds great sway here at St Mary’s School. This incredibly determined 17th Century nun paved the way for future generations of women to receive equal rights to an education and inspired the founding of our own school almost 125 years ago. At St Mary’s we honour Mary Ward throughout the year, but a day we all particularly look forward to celebrating is Mary Ward Day (23rd January – her birthday). Every year, at the end of January, we remember the life of this formidable lady, who is considered by many as the first sister of feminism.

Mary Ward was born in Yorkshire towards the end of the sixteenth century. Taught her faith by Jesuit chaplains, at a time when Catholics were persecuted, Mary moved to Flanders aged 15 to become a nun. In 1609, not content with the contemplative life expected of a nun, she decided to follow a path of active service. After experiencing a number of illuminations, Mary moved to London and opened a quasi-religious house with a group of young women of a similar background. In 1615, supported by her ‘English ladies’ she founded the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Over the years that followed, Mary built a network of houses and schools for girls – first in England, and then across Europe in Liege, Cologne, Triers, Rome and Vienna.

Unfortunately, Mary’s work and her Institute attracted much hostility from the Catholic Church, a faith which she loved and sought to serve. Her boldness and ‘behaviour’ was considered scandalous. Undeterred, Mary continued challenging the status quo. In 1621 she – and her fellow nuns – walked from Belgium to Rome to make her case to the Pope. Seeking papal approval for her Institute, she covered 1500 miles on foot, traversing the Alps. Despite her arduous journey, Mary’s pleas fell on deaf ears. Making the journey on three other occasions, she was eventually declared a heretic. In 1631, Pope Urban VIII closed her schools and imprisoned her for bringing the Church into disrepute. Several years later, Mary was cleared of heresy and allowed to restart her work. She reopened her schools – but her life was subsequently plagued by ill health until her death in 1645.

Today, Mary’s legacy lives on via a network of more than 200 Mary Ward Schools worldwide – including St Mary’s. Each school keeps Mary’s memory alive through a set of core values linked to her character traits. Fighting for justice, celebrating diversity, valuing friendship and encouraging excellence are just some of the Mary Ward values that we have adopted and which underpin our school’s ethos. At the beginning of every academic year, we select two Mary Ward values to explore in depth. This year we have chosen ‘women’s spirituality’ and ‘seeing the good in everything’.

To begin our 2022 Mary Ward celebrations, our Head, Charlotte Avery, and Sister Jane Livesey, discussed the life and legacy of our school's namesake on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. With an audience of circa 3.5 million people, this media opportunity – which took place on Friday 21 January – gave us the chance to introduce Mary and her work to a much larger audience. In school, our students celebrated with a range of activities throughout the day, beginning with a Junior School assembly hosted by The Faith Council, and a pre-prep assembly about the life of Mary Ward. The Reception class was so inspired that the students created an illustrated book about their school’s foundress, which you can see in the video below.

The whole Senior School then enjoyed a Mary Ward birthday celebration with banners and party food. A ribbon was cut to mark the opening of a new chaplaincy room. One student even dressed up as Mary Ward for the celebration. To end the day, the Senior School gathered for an online mass with Sister Jane Livesey. If that wasn’t enough, on Sunday, Sixth Form student, Maryam G, took time out of her weekend to be interviewed live on BBC Radio Cambridgshire by presenter Louise Hulland. She discussed the importance of Mary Ward to her own ambitions and educational pathway. She also gave a detailed account of Mary Ward’s life. It was an inspiring discussion and one we are sure Mary Ward herself would have been proud of!

Mary famously stated that: “Women in time to come will do much” and she was not wrong! Today, her vision continues to inspire our girls to ‘do much’ and to aim high, not just academically. At St Mary’s we develop our pupils into confident, compassionate young women, who can play a positive role in society. Mary Ward may not have been able to see the true impact of her actions whilst she was alive, but her incredible resilience and determination has paved the way for the generations of women that have followed her. Revolutionary for her time, Mary Ward had the courage to stand up for her beliefs and forged the way for better opportunities for women – something we must never forget!