"That Incomparable Woman......whom Catholic England gave to the Church" (Pope Pius XII)
Born into a Yorkshire Catholic recusant family in 1585 Mary Ward was remarkable for being among the first women to believe that women should be actively involved in the apostolic life of the Catholic Church. However, initially she opted for the strictest form of contemplative religious life determined to give herself totally to God.
When God revealed to her that a life of prayer and obscurity behind a convent wall was not what she was called to she returned to London in 1609. Here with a group of like-minded young women she engaged in apostolic work disregarding the strict laws against Catholics at the time. Later that same year Mary realised that God was calling her to some form of religious life “more to his glory” To discern what it was she left London for Flanders with her young companions and founded her first house at St Omer.
In 1611, when at prayer, enlightenment came to her and she heard clearly the words: ‘take the same of the Society’ by which she understood the ‘Society of Jesus’ founded by St Ignatius of Loyola. The rest of her life was to be spent in developing a congregation of religious women on the Ignatian model for which she needed, and failed to gain, papal approval.
Three times she and her companions walked to Rome from Flanders, twice to try to gain this approval and the third time as a prisoner of the Inquisition following the suppression of her congregation by Pope Urban VIII in 1631. During this period she founded houses and schools in Liège, Cologne, Rome, Naples, Munich, Vienna, Pressburg and other places, often at the request of the local rulers and bishops, but papal approval eluded her.
To the Papal authorities a congregation of apostolic, unenclosed women was conceptually a step too far at a time when the reforms of the Council of Trent had forbidden new religious congregations and confined religious women to enclosure. Had she been prepared to compromise and accept a form of enclosure Mary might have obtained papal approval. However, she would not compromise and preferred to face the dissolution of her congregation, imprisonment, the imputation of heresy, and disgrace rather than abandon her conviction that “there is no such difference between men and women that women in time to come will do much”.
Summoned to Rome in 1632 to face charges Mary was granted an audience with the Pope at which she declared: “Holy Father, I neither am nor ever have been a heretic”. She received the comforting reply: “We believe it, we believe it”. No trial ever took place, but Mary Ward was forbidden to leave Rome or to live in community.
In 1637 for reasons of health Mary was allowed to travel to Spa and then on to England. She died during the English Civil War just outside York on January 30th 1645. She is buried in Osbaldwick Anglican churchyard close by.
Mary Ward's Tombstone in Osbaldwick Church