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Mary Ward and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Mary Ward: 1585–1645
and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Mary Ward felt called to the religious life and she entered a convent of Poor Clares at Saint-Omer in France as lay sister in 1606. The following year she founded a house for Englishwomen at nearby Gravelines, but not finding herself called to the contemplative life, she resolved to devote herself to active work.

In 1609 Mary Ward and a band of devoted companions established a religious community at Saint-Omer, and opened schools for rich and poor girls. Later she set up communities and schools in many cities on the European continent, and her members were sent under cover on the English Mission to support the priests. The venture was a success, but it was a novelty, and it called forth censure and opposition as well as praise. Her idea was to enable women to do for the Church in their proper field, what men had done for it in the Society of Jesus. Uncloistered nuns were an innovation repugnant to long-standing principles and traditions then prevalent. The work of religious women was then confined to prayer, and such good offices for their neighbour as could be carried on within the walls of a convent.

There were other startling differences between the new institute and existing congregations of women, such as freedom from enclosure, from the obligation of choir, from wearing a religious habit, and from the jurisdiction of the diocesan. Moreover her scheme was put forward at a time when there was much division amongst English Catholics, and the fact that it borrowed so much from the Society of Jesus (itself an object of suspicion and hostility in many quarters) increased the mistrust it inspired.

The Archduchess Isabella, the Elector Maximilian I, and the Emperor Ferdinand II had welcomed the congregation to their dominions, and together with such men as Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, Fra Domenico de Gesù, and Father Mutio Vitelleschi, General of the Society of Jesus, held the foundress in singular veneration.

But this adventurous step into the unfamiliar and unknown aroused fierce opposition from within the Catholic Church. Despite their very tangible successes, the nuns were still viewed as women doing men's work. To remedy this, in 1629 Mary Ward went to Rome to present her ideas to the pope. However, these pleas fell on deaf ears. A papal bull issued by Pope Urban VIII in 1630 claimed in part that Mary's religious order was a real threat to the moral and intellectual fragility of women and it resulted in the closure of the institute. Mary Ward herself was, for a time, imprisoned as a "heretic rebel and schismatic."

Eventually through the loyalty of her companions her Institute grew again, but it did not receive the definitive approval of the Church until 1877, or the acknowledgement of Mary Ward as Foundress until 1909.




Papal Bull Closes Institute

_Rome, Italy, 1631: In 1609, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary was established in Saint-Omer in France by the English Catholic, Mary Ward, for the education of poor women. Mary, whose family are recusants living under persecution in Protestant England, steadfastly believed that she was led by the Holy Spirit to establish an order beyond the "cloister." This community, the members of which are often called "Loreto sisters," has now been found to be contradicted by the Council of Trent, which has decreed that religious women must remain strictly enclosed. A Papal Bull of Succession has been issued by Pope Urban VIII, which has resulted in the closure of the institute.

At the age of twenty-four she found herself surrounded by a band of devoted companions determined to labour under her guidance. In 1609 they established themselves as a religious community at Saint-Omer, and opened schools for rich and poor girls. The venture was a success, but it was a novelty, and it called forth censure and opposition as well as praise. Her idea was to enable women to do for the Church in their proper field, what men had done for it in the Society of Jesus. The idea has been realized over and over again in modern times, but in the 17th century it met with little encouragement. Uncloistered nuns were an innovation repugnant to long-standing principles and traditions then prevalent. The work of religious women was then confined to prayer, and such good offices for their neighbour as could be carried on within the walls of a convent.

Mary Ward and her Sisters, supported by the English Jesuit, John Gerard, lived by the Jesuit constitutions, emulating the missionary zeal of the Jesuits while maintaining their independence from them. Also known as the "Jesuitesses" and admired by many for their fervor and good works, they set up schools and communities across London and throughout Europe. Despite their very tangible successes, the nuns were still viewed as women doing men's work. To remedy this, in 1629 Mary Ward went to Rome to present her ideas to the pope.

However, these pleas have fallen on deaf ears, with the Bull of Succession claiming in part that Mary's religious order is a real threat to the moral and intellectual fragility of women. Mary Ward herself was, for a time, imprisoned as a "heretic rebel and schismatic."



Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

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