This blog post by Alexandra Verini recounts the life of Mary Ward, founder of a female religious community and controversial figure in her time.
by Alexandra Verini
Mary Ward is a fascinating early modern woman who has been relatively little studied. She was a Catholic born in a post-Reformation England and so spent much of her life in Europe where she founded a new congregation modeled on the Jesuit Society of Jesus, which served as a religious community for English Catholic women and a school for girls. I first became interested in Ward in my research on women’s utopianism and have found her to be a powerful example of how early modern women could refashion prescribed gender roles and enact prescient models of female community.
Despite her innovations, relatively few scholarly works have focused on Ward, in part, because, before 2007, all documents concerning her life and her society were kept under lock and key at the Schloss Nymphenburg in Munich. Recently, however, Sister Christina Kentworthy-Browne from the Bar Convent in York has published a biography of Ward written by her companions as well as Ward’s autobiographical fragments and select letters. Moreover, five German volumes have made available for the first time the entirety of the Ward archive, which includes letters between Ward and her followers, her spiritual writings, autobiographical fragments and institutional documents. These volumes, alongside with visual representations of Ward’s life, bear witness to a career that, in face of great challenges, staked a claim for women’s collective spiritual and political authority.
Born in 1585 to religious parents from a Catholic family in Yorkshire, Ward spent much of her early life with relatives. In 1599, she moved to the house of Sir Ralph Babthorpe at Osgodby, Selby, where, at the age of 15, she found a calling to religious life. As her biography, which was written after Ward’s death by two of her followers, recounts, when living at the Babthorpe residence, Ward “wou’d retyre herselfe alone in her Chaumber, with an old Catholicke Woman, and heare her tell storyes of Religious Women…which gave her such Light of the excellency of a Religious state, as all her Life she had a feeling of it (Kentworthy-Browne 6-7).
This period of her life is illustrated in the Painted Life, a series of fifty paintings illustrating significant events in Ward’s career commissioned by her followers Mary Wigmore, Mary Poyntz, and other early companions in the later seventeenth century. I traveled to Augsburg last year to see these paintings, which were helpfully explained to me by the sisters of the Congregatio Jesu.
In 1606, like many recusant Catholics, Ward left England to join the convent of Saint Clares in Saint-Omer in what was then Spanish Flanders, where she met her future spiritual director Roger Lee (1574-1615).
The following year she left the convent to start a new foundation of the same order specifically for English women at the nearby Gravelines. Five years later, however, she received a divine revelation, which she later called her glory vision, in which God instructed her to “take the same of the society,” referring to the Society of Jesus. This vision prompted Ward to leave Gravelines to found the Schola Beata Mariae, the first of over a dozen houses devoted to teaching Catholic girls and pursuing missionary work for the Catholic cause in England. Ward’s “Society of Jesus” was highly unusual as it was governed by women, unenclosed, and available for apostolic work worldwide, including the support of priests on the English Mission. In taking the step to found her society, Ward went against the establishment on multiple fronts: she was inherently at odds with her nation’s religion, but she also fell out of favor with the papacy since, by promoting women’s active ministry, she defied the Post-Tridentine prescription of enclosure for religious women.
Female community was integral to Ward’s society, and she maintained strong female friendships throughout her life, describing herself in her spiritual exercises as “apt for friendship.” During her stay in London in 1609, she won over several young aristocratic women, who crossed over with her to Saint-Omer to serve under her direction. These women are shown sitting together in the Painted Life.
The value Ward placed on the female community that subsequently gathered around her is manifest in a set of addresses that she delivered in December 1617 at Saint-Omer to 60 of her followers. Speaking directly to these women, she describes them in exalted terms: “You are spectakells to god, angells and men. It is certaine that god has looked uppon you as he never looked uppon any” (Dirmeier, vol. 1, 363). Ward acted on the faith she invested in her followers when she founded centers for her society in Bratislava (Pressburg), Cologne, Hewarth, Liège, London, Munich, Naples, Perugia, Prague, Rome, St.-Omer, Trèves (Trier), and Vienna and entrusted their governance to her female friends with whom she corresponded regularly about administrative and spiritual matters.
Her most frequent epistolary correspondent was Winefrid Wigmore (shown on the left of the Painted Life image 22 according to a sister from Augsburg). In her many letters, Ward addresses her friend affectionately as “My Dear Win” and commends her “mannaginge of matters” (Perugia 1624 July 23)
In another letter sent on July 16, 1627, Ward congratulates Wigmore on the progress she has made in the Latin education of girls and instructing her to encourage more pupils to study Latin: “Thes [words] are indeed cheifly to congratulate the unexpected progress of your lattin Schools … All such as are capable, invite them to yt; and for such as desirs to be of ours, noe tallant ys to be so much regarded in them as the lattin tounge.” Ward further praises Wigmore’s education of a particular girl, describing how priests have praised the girl’s Latin writing: “The lattin hand Maria Mich: wrote her theam in, ys hear by thes fathers much commaunded, though I thinke yt ys farr short of what yt wilbe.” In this letter and others, Ward demonstrates the value she placed on education for women and interest she took in each of her individual followers and pupils. Far from being the ego-driven project of one woman, Ward’s Society was formed through the collaborative efforts of a network of women and girls across Europe.
Despite Ward’s successes, her vision of a community for women engaged in active ministry was never fully realized in her lifetime, primarily due to Catholic opposition (including by one of her community’s former members, Mary Alcock). Opponents viewed Ward as heretical, dubbing her and her followers “galloping nuns,” referring to her society’s lack of enclosure. Ward’s breach of papal law led to the Vatican’s suppression of the Institute in 1631, with Pope Urban VIII’s signing of the Pastoralis Romani Pontificis. All Ward’s foundations were dissolved, and she herself was imprisoned, ironically in a foundation of the same order she had joined as a young girl: a Poor Clare convent, the Angerkloster, in Munich. She was denied the female companionship that had been so vital to her mission as the sisters of the Angerkloster were forbidden to speak to her and she was prohibited from writing letters. During this time, Ward communicated with her supporters secretly by sending letters written in lemon juice, whose words only appear when the paper was heated. Twenty-three of these fragile lemon-juice letters survive today.
When Ward was eventually freed in October 1631, she set out for Rome to seek a papal audience and make a case for her Society. Despite his verbal approbation of her work, Pope Urban VIII did not revoke the Bull condemning the Institute, and though the Inquisition issued a statement that neither Mary Ward nor her companions were guilty of acts against the Church, Ward remained under the shadow of the Inquisition. She was never allowed to see the written statements against her, and it was not until recently, when granted access to the Vatican’s archives, that the Institute realized the extent of papal opposition against the Society. Most of the members of the Society of Jesus were forced to leave their houses and either return to secular life or join other religious orders. Only in Munich and Rome were a limited number allowed to live together as laywomen.
Ward spent the remainder of her life under house arrest in Rome and moving between various spas in Europe due to her ill health before returning to Yorkshire where she died on January 30, 1645. Her tombstone reads:
To love the poor,
persevere in the same,
live die and rise with them
was all the aim of
who lived 60 years and eight days
and died on 20th January, 1645
After her death, the Ward’s foundation slowly gained recognition. The Society received full confirmation by Pope Pius IX in 1877; in 1900, the name Institute of the Blessed Virgin (in place of Society of Jesus) became its official title; in 1909, the petition for Ward’s rehabilitation received approval by Pope Pius X. Finally, in 1979, the Vatican approved Ward’s plan to adopt the Jesuit Constitutions; in 2002, the Roman branch of Mary Ward’s Institute returned to Mary Ward’s founding vision by changing its name from “Institutum Beatae Mariae Virginis” (IBMV) to “Congregatio Jesu” (“Congregation of Jesus” in English); and in 2004, the Roman branch of IBVM was renamed the Congregation of Jesus, fulfilling the vision of its foundress, who was given the title ‘Venerable’ by Benedict XVI in 2009. In 2015, during Pope Francis’s trip to Cuba, Mary Ward Associates presented him with a letter requesting that he beatify and canonize Ward, which would constitute the Catholic’s Church’s highest recognition of her achievements.
Several branches of Ward’s order survive today, including the Roman branch of the order, the Congregatio Jesu, and the Sisters of Loreto founded by Sister Frances Mary Teresa Ball in the early nineteenth century. Both of these branches have established foundations and schools across the world.
There is still much work to be done on Ward. Most accounts of her life are biographies, which while valuable resources on her life, in many cases, did not have access to the documents in Munich. Her Painted Life, many letters in multiple languages, institutional documents, biography and autobiographical fragments are works of historical, theological, art historical and literary importance and hopefully will gain greater recognition in years to come.
Dirmeier, Ursula CJ, ed. Mary Ward ind hire Grundung. Die quellentexte bis 1645, 4 vols. Munster: Aschendorff Verlag, 2007.
Congregatio Jesu. Accessed April 21, 2017. http://www.congregatiojesu.org/en/index.asp.
Gallagher, Lowell. “Mary Ward’s ‘Jesuitresses’ and the Construction of a Typological Community.” In Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England, edited by Susan Frye and Karen Robertson, 199-220. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Gallagher, Lowell. “Remembering Lot’s Wife: The Structure of Testimony in the Painted Life of Mary Ward.” In Religious Diversity in Early Modern English Texts: Judaic, Catholic, Feminist and Secular Dimensions, edited Arthur F. Marotti and Chanita Goodblatt, 77-106. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2013.
Kentworthy-Browne, Christina, ed. Mary Ward (1585-1645): A Briefe Relation…with Autobiographical Fragments and a Selection of Letters. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press for the Catholic Record Society, 2008.
Littlehales, Margaret. Mary Ward: Pilgrim and Mystic 1585-1645. Tunbridge Wells: Burns and Oates, 1998.
Peters, Henrietta. Mary Ward: a World in Contemplation. Leominster, UK: Gracewing Publishing, 1994.
Wallace, David. “Periodizing Mary Ward (1585-1645) and the Premodern Canon.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36.2 (2006): 397-495.
Wallace, David. Strong Women: Life, Text and Territory 1347-1645. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Alexandra Verini is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research interests include medieval and early modern women’s writing, devotional culture, and gender theory. Her dissertation, “A New Kingdom of Femininity: Women’s Utopias in Early English Culture and Imagination,” examines women’s utopian writing between 1405 and 1666. You can learn more about Alexandra’s work on her personal website or her academia.edu profile.