Mary Ward - women's dream fulfilled after 400 years

2 February 2007 - While the cause for the beatification of Mary Ward proceeds at the Vatican, preparations have begun to mark the 400th anniversary of the start of her pioneering vision for apostolic ministry and education for women, which takes place in 2009.

Sr Gemma Simmonds CJ writes: Mary Ward (1585-1645) was born into a family of Yorkshire recusants, outlaw Catholics refusing to conform to the state religion. Condemned to death in London for her work among underground Catholics, she fled to the continent with a group of companions in 1609, believing herself called to start a religious order for women modelled on the mobility and missionary focus of the Jesuits, while remaining independent from them. This contradicted the Council of Trent's insistence that religious women be strictly enclosed. In a society and a church unprepared for such emancipation, she taught that 'there is no such difference between men and women, that women may not do great things'.

Dubbed 'The English Ladies', Mary Ward and her sisters founded communities and schools across Europe. Mary walked over the Alps to Rome amid the Thirty Years War and outbreaks of plague, to present her new plan to the Pope. Her repeated attempts to persuade him failed, and the fledgling congregation was suppressed as a risk to the moral and intellectual fragility of women. Mary was imprisoned as a 'heretic, rebel and schismatic' in 1631.

She died in York in 1645 during the English Civil War surrounded by her few remaining companions, who continued to live the dream of an unenclosed apostolic order for women. It took nearly 300 years to gain final Papal approval of Mary Ward's plan. Two branches of the order now exist, living under the full constitutions of the Society of Jesus; the Congregation of Jesus and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as Loreto sisters. For more information please visit:

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