The Ongoing Story
“All that is not in Him will pass away with time" (Mary Ward)
The 1631 Bull of Suppression destroyed Mary Ward’s first institute. However, it did not destroy the will of her companions to persevere in the form of unenclosed, apostolic religious life that Mary had felt called to. The history of the survival, growth, and recognition by the Church of Mary Ward’s founding vision is a long and complicated one.
The same dilemma that faced Mary Ward in her lifetime faced her successors, namely, how to be loyal to a Church that refused to recognise the right of the congregation to exist whilst at the same time striving to be faithful to that founding vision. That the institute survived at all is remarkable, and a sign that the Church needed an institute such as Mary Ward’s without actually realising it.
By the end of the 17th century the institute was well established in Bavaria in Munich, Augsburg, Burghausen, and was about to expand into the Habsburg dominions. It also had a foothold in England in London and York. Compromises were inevitable into order to survive. In many instances, houses became semi-monastic in their life-style, but the educational apostolate continued to flourish. Most significant, the memory of Mary Ward lived on despite a second Bull of 1749 that re-emphasised the prohibition on recognising her as foundress. Many of her letters and other historic material was destroyed, but the memory of what she had wanted lived on. An interesting letter from the early 18th century notes: “Ours keep faithfully ….to the approved rules as well as to all those regulations that are not approved”.
By the early 19th century it was becoming more acceptable for women religious to be apostolically active in the Church. With the rise of liberalism and socialism the need for an educated Catholic laity was recognised. This was also the period of missionary activity and the institute spread throughout Europe and overseas to India. In 1877 the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as it was then known, was at last approved by the Church, but not with the full Ignatian Constitutions for which Mary Ward had struggled. That had to wait another century until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council encouraged religious to return to the charism of their founders.
In 1909 Mary Ward was at last recognised as the foundress of the Instiute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but it took another century before her sisters were able to “take the same as the Society”. This did not take effect until the General Congregation of 2002.
The complex history of Mary Ward’s foundation over the past 400 years gave rise to a series of separate houses and Generalates at different times. At present there are two branches of her institute: the Congregatio Jesu and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as the Loreto sisters, founded in Ireland from York in 1821.