The IBVM (Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary) was founded by Mary Ward, a Yorkshire woman, who lived during the civil unrest which followed the Reformation, when Catholics in England were suffering persecution for their faith. Mary was born in 1585 into a rich and influential Catholic family, who, like many others on both sides of the conflict between the Reformers and Rome, put more value on the right to practise one’s religious beliefs than on status and comforts. She was only one year old when Margaret Clitheroe, a married woman with children, was martyred for her faith in York City. Her own Grandmother, Ursula Wright, spent many years in prison for her faith. Resistance took many forms: her two uncles, John and Christopher Wright, number among the group of men involved in the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Mary was then 21 years of age. While equally passionate about her faith, she chose a different way…
As a child, Mary was constantly on the move, staying with relatives in remote parts of Yorkshire.
O Parent of Parents and Friend of all Friends. You took me into your care. – Mary Ward’s prayer
While with her cousins, she first heard about religious life and felt a deep desire to give herself to God in this way. It was here too that she came to the realisation that any relationship with God must be based on freedom; that fear and guilt were not from God, and she promised herself that she would “do these things (religious practices) in love and freedom or leave them alone.”
I discovered the Freedom one should have to refer all to God. – Mary Ward
This was a time when the prevailing opinion in the church was that the only option open to a woman was marriage or entry into an enclosed order. So despite opposition from her family and many suitors for marriage, Mary entered the Poor Clare Convent in St Omer in Flanders. However, there she was assigned to a life of door-to-door begging, and while this gave her an experience of poverty and oppression, she realised that this was not the life that God willed for her. Continually desirous to do something for her beloved country, she founded her own Convent of Poor Clares for English women, again in Flanders, for it was an impossibility at home. Although this flourished, it was shown to her that this was not her way either. Mary left and by the age of 24 she was back in England.
In 1609, while in her London lodgings, and combing her hair in front of a mirror, Mary had the realisation that “something other was determined for me. I did not see what the assured good thing would be, but the glory to God which was to come through it, showed itself inexplicably and so abundantly as to fill my soul in such a way that I remained for a good space without feeling or hearing anything but the sound ‘Glory, Glory, Glory’.”
The way forward was far from clear. She returned to St Omer with a few companions who shared her vision, and opened a boarding school for English girls and a day school for the children of the town.
“…our companions few in number; diverse in talent
and temperament, one in mind and heart, together in
work and prayer, sought to sift our vision and discern
God’s will. One thing at least we were resolved upon:
no half-measures and no ‘half-women’, but a whole-hearted
dedication to the formation of whole persons.”
(Mary Ward, 1609)
In time, she is given to understand by God that she is to ‘Take the same of the Society’ (The Society of Jesus). Hers is to be the way of the Jesuits, embracing the same pathway to God. The aim was to give glory to God through their work of service in the Church, caring for and spreading the faith through education and other apostolates. The essential qualities which she saw to be the foundation for those called to their way of life were to be:
Freedom, Sincerity, Justice
As Mary’s companions grew in number, her Institute flourished throughout Europe. She continued to open schools for girls in response to requests from civil leaders, at a time when educating women was seen as extraordinary.
“..that we be as we appear and appear as we are.” (Mary Ward, 1615)
Her prophetic vision was too radical for Church authorities. Three times she walked to Rome to ask the Pope to recognise the Institute: a religious order not enclosed, whose members elect their own leaders and who wear the dress of the day. She had many enemies, however, within the Church as well as outside it, and Mary was imprisoned for a time as a heretic, while her fledgling order was suppressed. She continued to pray for her enemies and to trust in God, convinced that “women in time to come will do much.”
‘the pretended Congregation of women called Jesuitesses
and their sect and state was and is from its beginning null and void
and of no authority or importance,…
we totally and completely suppress and extinguish them,
subject them to perpetual abolition
and remove them entirely from the Holy Church of God.’
(from the Bull of Suppression, 1631)
Love and speak the truth at all times. – Mary Ward
Mary returned to York in the midst of the Civil War, and died there in 1645. Her last words were of encouragement to her companions, urging them to cherish God’s vocation in them, “let it be constant, efficacious and loving.” Ironically, due to historical circumstances, she is buried in the graveyard of an Anglican Church in Osbaldwick, York.
Mary Ward’s Tombstone reads:
To Love the Poor
persevere in the same
live, die and rise with them
was all the aim of Mary Ward,
who, having lived 60 years and 8 days
died the 30th of January 1645
Official approval of her Institute came slowly. In 1951 Pope Pius XII acknowledged her in these words: “… that incomparable woman, whom at the direst and bloodiest era, Catholic England gave to the Church.”
The Constitutions for which she asked the Pope in 1631 were only granted to her sisters in 1978.