Born in Yorkshire in 1585, at a time when practising the Roman Catholic faith was illegal, Mary Ward grew up surrounded by faithful and courageous women who were determined to keep the faith alive. Through the influence of visiting Jesuits who risked their lives to serve as priests on the mission in England, she became familiar with the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola, and with the Jesuit model of life and mission.
Mary Ward left England in 1606 in order to enter religious life, initially joining the Poor Clares in St Omer. When God showed her that life as an enclosed nun was not her vocation, she returned to London, where she worked in the Catholic underground with a group of like-minded young women. In 1609, she and her companions left London for Flanders, where they lived in community, seeking God’s will for their life together. In 1611 Mary Ward received her answer from God: the community were to ‘take the same of the Society’ – the same spirituality and mission of the Society of Jesus.
Mary Ward spent the rest of her life developing a congregation for women based on the Jesuit model. She and her companions walked from Flanders to Rome to try to gain papal approval for their new foundation. As they travelled, they founded houses and schools across Europe, in cities as far apart as Munich, Naples and modern-day Bratislava, while other members of the young community remained in England, working in secret to support Catholics in their faith.
Mary Ward’s refusal to accept enclosure, which would have limited her work severely, led to opposition and persecution from church authorities, but she preferred to face the dissolution of her congregation, imprisonment, the accusation of heresy and disgrace rather than abandon her conviction that ‘there is no such difference between men and women that women may not do great things’. After years of failing to gain papal approval for her congregation, Mary Ward returned to England in 1637 in poor health, dying near York in 1645 in the midst of the English Civil War. Among her last words to the companions gathered around her were, ‘Cherish God’s vocation in you. Let it be constant, efficacious and loving.’