One of the first religious women to successfully avoid the canon law requiring vowed women to be enclosed (cloistered) was Mary Ward (1585-1645). Mary was raised in a devout Recusant family in Ripon and at the age of fourteen went to live in the home of a wealthy gentleman, Sir Ralph Babthorpe, and his family. This was a common practice at the time when a young woman or man of the gentry learned the responsibilities of their class in a socially prominent household. It was often where marriage connections were made and there was a strong network of Recusant (Catholic) families that helped Catholics marry within the faith. Yorkshire, particularly rural Yorkshire, being far from Protestant London, had a relatively strong Catholic community among its populace. Mary, however, did not find herself interested in a husband but felt drawn to the religious life, and for that she had to leave England as the open practicing of the Catholic faith was prohibited by law and thus there were no monasteries or convents. She crossed the channel in 1606 to the Spanish Netherlands to become a lay sister in the Poor Clares at St.Omer. The following year, using her dowry, she established a Poor Clare monastery at Gravelines in what is today the very northern edge of France. The monastic live was particularly severe. The nuns wore habits made of rough wool, were meatless except at Christmastime, slept on straw mattresses and practiced other disciplines common to the reformed orders of the time. None of that unsettled Mary, but the enclosure did. She felt very drawn to the religious life, but recognized the need for an apostolic community based on the spirituality and mission of the Society of Jesus. She left the monastery she had founded and gathered a group of like-minded women around her and formed the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary Ward recognized that one of the primary needs in early modern Europe, and the Church in early modern Europe, was the education of women. English Recusant experience showed her that the survival of Catholicism depended on women knowing their faith. In England, among the Catholics of means, the husband and father of the family often had to “conform” to the Church of England to avoid the legal and monetary disabilities imposed on Catholics by the royal government, leaving the practice and handing-on of the faith to the wife and mother. This made it imperative that Catholic women be educated in a Catholic environment, something quite impossible to do publically in England. What was needed was a religious community of women, independent and self-governing like male religious orders, without religious habits or other public marks of identity, who were themselves educated and independent-minded ladies. Their religious practices had to be discreet and simple, forgoing the elaborate choir ceremonial typical to enclosed orders of both men and women. The Ignatian influence on her own spiritual development—and so much recusant spirituality was formed by the Jesuits—stressed the interior life and mental prayer. But this created a very different model of religious life—like the Jesuits, totally non-monastic.
There were no formal ties between Mary’s group and the Jesuits—the Jesuits have always, following Ignatius’ explicit mandate—rejected a female branch of their congregation. Nevertheless, there were strong spiritual bonds. That was often to the detriment of the Sisters however as many in the Church resented the Jesuits for their non-iconic ways and were even more alarmed when women showed such independence. Bishops were often particularly put out as they expected religious, especially women religious, to be dependent on their authority and under their control. Consequently Mary Ward and her Institute attracted quite a bit of negative attention.
The new Institute worked not only covertly in England, but spread from Flanders into the Austrian Empire and Italy and Catholic regions of Germany. Its educational work among women won it many admirers from the upper classes and the nobility—and even the Holy Roman Emperor. In addition several popes expressed their admiration. Nevertheless, the Institute was suppressed by a commission of Cardinals in 1630 when asked by the Pope to evaluate the new community. Curiously enough, and somewhat inexplicably to moderns with a canonical mindset, the Pope (Urban VIII), an admirer of Mary Ward and her work, invited her to Rome where she and a community of her sisters lived and worked under his protection. In 1639 the pope wrote a letter of introduction for Mary Ward to England’s Catholic Queen Consort, Henrietta Marie, wife of Charles I. In 1642, just as the English Civil War was beginning, Mary returned to England and established a community at Heworth in Yorkshire. She died three years later and was buried in the Anglican churchyard at Osbaldwick, Yorkshire.
The Institute survived—initially and for a long time without canonical approval. In 1703 Pope Clement XI approved their Rule of Life and the Institute itself was given papal approbation in 1877 by Pope Pius IX. It leaves us with this question—why do we think that “nuns,” or actually apostolic communities of women—have to wear habits, live in convents, spend long periods of time at formal prayers in their chapels? No one is saying that monastic life—for women or for men—is not a valid form of religious life, but is it the only form? Perhaps the real issue, now as in Mary Ward’s day, is how much can women religious (or lay, for that matter) be trusted to make decisions for themselves? On the othe hand, Pope Benedict did name her Venerable. Prophets are not recognized in their own day.
The image today is a painting of the seventeenth-century religous founder, Venerable Mary Ward.