Celebration at Westminster Cathedral of Mary Ward and her legacy

The Venerable Mary Ward

The Venerable Mary Ward

The Most Rev Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, and The Most Reverend and Rt Hon Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury will lead a special celebration at Westminster Cathedral this Saturday in honour of Mary Ward, who has officially reached the first stage towards sainthood, and the 400th Jubilee of the Congregation of Jesus (CJ) and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IVBM) which she founded.

Archbishop Nichols will be chief celebrant at the Mass.  Dr Rowan Williams will give a post-Communion address.  More than 2,000 people are expected to attend. Among the guests will be Madame Paulette Leporcq, deputy major of St Omer, Mr Duncan Sandys, Mayor of Westminster, and Baroness Hogg.

Sister Gemma Simmonds of the Congregation of Jesus said: “Mary Ward lived in a time of terrible religious conflict in Britain.  We began our jubilee celebrations for her in York Minster, as guests of the Anglican community.

"We are delighted to repay the warm hospitality we received then by inviting the Archbishop of Canterbury to be with us at Westminster Cathedral, as we pay tribute to this unique woman of vision and faith. We are particularly happy that this is happening now, when Mary Ward has formally reached the first stage towards canonisation.  She is one of Britain’s best kept secrets, a saint for the third millennium and someone we should be proud of as a great pioneer for women”.

Mary Ward was a Yorkshire woman who, at a time of severe repression of Roman Catholics in England, felt called by God to found a congregation of religious sisters on the model of the Jesuits (Society of Jesus). Her vision was for a non-enclosed order of religious sisters who might serve their faith actively as educators and missionaries across Europe, set free from the restrictions of monastic life as the Jesuits were. In an era when women were considered intellectually and morally incapable of doing good for themselves, let alone for others, Mary soon came into conflict with the Papal authorities. 

Having founded a community of sisters in St Omer in Flanders in 1609, Mary was initially allowed to open schools across Europe without restriction and continued to secretly assist persecuted Catholics in Protestant England. Her Order of ‘English Ladies’ considered itself directly answerable to the Pope without other intervening male authority. But when Mary travelled to Rome to seek Papal recognition for her congregation of so-called ‘Jesuitesses’, Pope Urban VIII  ruled against her refusal of enclosure and imprisoned her as a heretic. 

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. 

The Congregation of Jesus and Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loreto Sisters) have around 3,000 members, active in 44 countries across five continents. The Mass in Westminster Cathedral on 23 January marks the conclusion of their year-long celebration of the 400th Jubilee of Mary Ward. 

The cause for Mary Ward’s canonisation was opened in 1929. The historical research was accepted by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in 1995. Theologians completed their investigations in 2009 and recommended unanimously that her cause should go forward. In December,  Pope Benedict XVI published a Decree recognising the ‘heroic virtue’ demonstrated by Mary Ward (1585 –1645) and thereby conferring on her the title ‘Venerable’ - the first of three stages towards canonization.

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