Each night I try to spend time doing some spiritual reading. Right now I am reading through biographies of Venerable Mary Ward, foundress of the community. By getting to know her better, I hope to get to know the community better too.
To be honest, I didn’t know quite what to think of her when I first heard about her a couple of years ago. I had read a fairly brief history of her life, had found out that shortly after she had founded the community, it was suppressed by the Church, and that she was not formally acknowledged as foundress of the community until 1909. I wondered who the heck this woman was behaving contrary to church tradition – why did it take so long for the church to recognize her? I wasn’t too sure that she was someone I actually wanted to get to know better.
But I persisted. I read a bit more, and spent time praying with a little pocket book of her quotes/sayings I was given. She lived in the 1600s and her style of writing was sometimes a challenge for me to understand. I puzzled over her insights on prayer and the interior life. Slowly, I understood a little better and felt drawn to her.
Which brings me to my current reading. I have finished reading a wonderful book entitled That Incomparable Woman, written by Mother Margarita O’Connor, ibvm and have started on a two-volume biography on Mary Ward’s life by Mother M.E. Chambers, ibvm. Both of these woman have written beautifully about Mary Ward. It’s inspiring to read about Mary’s own discernment and the path she took to religious life. While I can’t go into as much detail here as the books go into, I will give a quick overview of her life. I am sure that as I make my way through the candidacy program, I will come back to her life again and again. But for now, I would like to introduce you to a new friend…
Mary Ward was born on January 23, 1585 in Yorkshire, England. Over the course of her adolescence she was increasingly drawn to religious life. In 1606, she entered a convent of Poor Clares at St.-Omer, France as a lay sister. She lived outside the convent and was responsible for begging alms and food for the sisters. She soon realized that this was not the life God was calling her to. The following year she founded a house of Poor Clares for Englishwomen at Gravelines in France, but God revealed to her that she was not called to the contemplative life.
Instead, she resolved to devote herself to active work and returned to England. At the age of twenty-four she found herself surrounded by a band of devoted companions determined to labour under her guidance. In 1609 they established themselves as a religious community at St.-Omer, and opened schools for girls. The venture was a success, but it was a novelty.
Her inspiration was to create a community of women founded on the model of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). In the 17th century, that kind of freedom for women religious met a lot of resistance. The work of religious women was then confined to prayer to be carried on within the walls of a convent. There were other startling differences between the new institute and existing congregations of women, such as freedom from enclosure, from the obligation of choir, from wearing a religious habit, and from the jurisdiction of the diocesan.
Opposition to this new way of life eventually led to suppression by Pope Urban VIII. From 1629 onwards, Mary’s communities in Prague, Vienna, Cologne, Trier, northern Italy and eventually Liege were all closed, and the sisters were urged to return to their families or to join other approved religious communities. Only the sisters in Munich survived because of the protection of the Elector Maximilian, although they lived in extreme poverty for a number of years.For several months in the winter of 1631 Mary was imprisoned in a Poor Clare convent in Munich by order of the Inquisition. When she was released, she and several companions went to Rome, where she proclaimed that she was neither disobedient nor a heretic.
At the express desire of Pope Urban Mary went to Rome, and there as she gathered around her the younger members of her religious family, under the supervision and protection of the Holy See, the new institute took shape. In 1639, with letters of introduction from Pope Urban to Queen Henrietta Maria, Mary returned to England and established herself in London. In 1642 she journeyed northward with her household and took up her abode at Heworth, near York, where she died in 1645. The stone over her grave in the village churchyard of Osbaldwick is preserved to this day.
Excerpted and adapted from: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15551c.htm