On 29 January, York Minster will host a Catholic Mass held in celebration of Mary Ward's foundation of the Congregation of Jesus and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Around 1500 people will attend the service at 11.30am including Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Bishop Terry Drainey of Middlesbrough, the Earl of Halifax, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds and Fra Matthew Festing, Grand Master of the Order of Malta.
Given the difficult history of Anglican/Catholic relations in Britain, the Congregation of Jesus is particularly delighted by this warm ecumenical gesture by York Minster. The invitation from the Dean and chapter of York Minster to celebrate Mass in the second most important Anglican Church in England marks the culmination of a 400-year long struggle by pioneering Yorkshire-woman Mary Ward and her followers to found an active order of nuns on the Jesuit model.
Prior to this time, priests of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) served their faith actively across Europe as educators, advisors and missionaries free of the restrictions of the monastic life, while women called to a religious vocation were compelled to a sedentary life of contemplation, securely enclosed behind convent walls. Mary Ward (1585 1645) worked to change all that.
Centuries ahead of her time and a woman of true Yorkshire grit, Mary Ward recognized that in a time of severe political repression of Roman Catholics in England it was essential to educate women to work actively in the service of the church and Catholic girls who, as mothers, would pass on their faith to future generations. In 1609 she led a group of women to St Omer in France to start 'a consecrated life without enclosure' against the wishes of the Papal authorities.
Society at this time considered women intellectually and morally incapable of doing good for themselves, let alone for others. Mary countered: "Women in time to come will do much."
In 1611 she felt called by God to adopt the spirituality and Constitutions of the Society of Jesus for her sisters, gaining the name in some quarters of 'Jesuitesses' or 'Galloping Girls'. And gallop she did, travelling from Brussels to Rome on foot in 1621 to seek Papal approval for her Order. Initially permitted to open schools across Catholic Europe, the tide turned against her when Pope Urban VIII officially ruled against the sisters' refusal of enclosure, suppressing the order and imprisoning Mary Ward as a heretic.*
The Bar Convent in York, founded in 1686, is the oldest religious house in England and the foundation house of both the English province of the Congregation of Jesus and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loreto sisters). Mary Ward foundation schools currently include St Mary's Hampstead (London), Ascot, Shaftesbury and Cambridge and Loreto College and VI Form College in Altrincham, Manchester and St Alban's. Today Mary Ward's sisters are active in 44 countries across five continents.
Sister Gemma Simmonds of the Congregation of Jesus said: "Mary Ward is one of Britain's best kept secrets. She is a saint for the third millennium and someone we should be proud of as a great pioneer for women.
"Despite centuries of struggle in a Church and a world unprepared for Mary Ward's pioneering vision, her sisters today are fulfilling her dream of apostolic service and opportunities for women all over the world".
"During the Mass the Dean of York Minster has invited us to use the Braganza Crozier, donated to the Minster by Charles II's Catholic queen Catherine of Braganza, who gave us a convent and school which we ran secretly in Hammersmith. We will also be using the Mercier Chalice, given to the Minster by Cardinal Mercier of Belgium during an attempt to unite the Anglican and Catholic churches. Although that attempt was a failure, Mary Ward has many Anglican admirers and we are thrilled to be celebrating at the Minster."
Mary Ward is currently being considered by the Vatican for canonisation. For more information see: www.cjengland.org/