Mary Ward, an intrepid Yorkshire woman, was born in 1585, into an England ravaged by religious war where attendance at Mass was considered an offence against the state and the harbouring of priests was treason punishable by death.
As a young woman, Mary followed her desire for religious life and joined a Poor Clare community in St Omer in Flanders (now northern France).
However, it quickly became apparent to her that God was asking ‘some other thing' of her and, having made a vow to join a Carmelite community - should her confessor so direct her, she returned to London.
Here Mary worked tirelessly caring for the sick, visiting prisoners, offering catechesis and supporting those struggling with their faith. A number of women joined her, prepared to associate with her in a new venture.
One morning as she was dressing she received a spiritual gift which convinced her she had a mission. ‘I understood that the work to be done was not a Carmelite convent but a thing that would please God far more and give him greater glory than I can say, but I was not told any particulars about what the work was to be or how it was to be done.'
Towards the end of the year 1609, Mary and her five companions left London for St Omer and began a school mainly for English emigrants.
In 1611 she received further Divine instruction that she should ‘take the same of the Society' and so began her work in endeavouring to establish an Institute for women based on the active apostolic life established by St Ignatius Loyola for the Jesuits.
Her women were to be dressed in the ordinary clothes of the time, would not be confined by monastic enclosure and, most controversially, were not to be under any male Order but were to be self-governing. These demands were in contradiction to the norms of the Council of Trent and presented great difficulty for the leadership of the post-reformation Church.
Mary travelled extensively through Europe, mainly on foot, seeking support for her Institute. Schools were established in Belgium, Bavaria, Austria and Italy.
However, the Cardinals of the Inquisition prevailed and in 1631, a Bull of Suppression was imposed on Mary and her Institute.
Mary, condemned in the bull as a ‘heretic, schismatic and rebel to Holy Church', was imprisoned in Munich. The Institute was pronounced to be ‘suppressed, extinct, uprooted and abolished'. The schools were closed and the members of the Institute dispersed.
Though released from prison and subsequently absolved by Pope Urban VIII, Mary's life's work was now shattered. She eventually returned to her native York and died there in 1645.
Despite the suppression, some of Mary's companions continued to live together as lay people and, under the patronage of the Elector of Bavaria, the school in Munich re-opened.
Despite numerous efforts to gain approval for Mary Ward's dream, in 1703 these women acquiesced to a limited rule based on the Ignatian spirit but any reference to Mary Ward as foundress was forbidden. This prohibition by the Church was not lifted until 1909.
However, in spite of this her memory and spirit remained alive, and today two congregations, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loreto) and the Congregation of Jesus, look to her as foundress. Their members are to be found in many and varied ministries from Peru to Vietnam, from Mongolia to Zimbabwe.
Mary Ward stands as a beacon of hope for our world today. Her resolute and faith-filled spirit shines through all the difficulties of her life. She lived with the true inner freedom she encouraged in her followers.
Even when challenged by the Church she loved, she never wavered from her vision of the new way of religious life she was called to develop. And this was to be done with a light, joyful heart.
Knowing the great gift of God's love in her life, she assured her followers that their ‘greatness and strength consists in this, that we have free and open access to God'.