The history of English Catholics during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is mainly a record of the bitter persecutions that stamped out the faith from three-fourths of the households of all England. In those days to practise the faith was treason, to teach it meant death, to send children elsewhere for religious instruction was to court financial ruin. Yet to the Netherlands, then a dependency of Spain, went a daughter of a faithful Catholic family—Mary Ward, born 23 January 1585. Young, gentle, beautiful, she went forth to seek conventual life among strangers, and the journey required to be planned in secret and made in disguise. The same journey was undertaken by hundreds of others – men and women – whose faith made life at home a menace to their friends and a peril to themselves.
Acting under the advice of her confessor, she applied for admission to a convent of Poor Clares, and in obedience to the superioress the maiden found herself begging from door to door as a lay sister. This was the nearest approach to the higher life that the community could extend to an English woman whose coming was long announced. Such was the crowded condition of all the convents in the Low Countries about this time that it was impossible to receive the number of English ladies applying for admission.
Before many months had passed away Mary’s confessor and the superioress decided that they had formed a rash judgment in condemning her to the rigors of alms-seeking in a strange land. It became evident to them that this labor was not the work to which God had called his gentle servant. Meanwhile an interior voice told Mary that she was not in the vocation where God would have her to be. After reaching this conclusion she hesitated no longer to sever her connection with the Poor Clares. Firmness and promptitude marked her character, and in a few days after her superiors had spoken she left the convent.
Through the kind offices of the bishop of Saint Omer and the consent of the archduke, Mary secured possession of a house at Gravelines which had been bequeathed for a religious purpose, and at once proceeded to organ ize the infant community. That no time might be lost, she hired a house at Saint Omer for the use of herself and her companions until that at Gravelines was ready for occupancy, and five nuns from a convent of Poor Clares were transferred to the temporary abode, in order that the new foundation might be completed as soon as possible. Here they received children and young ladies from abroad, and little by little shaped the rules of their house, that it might serve as a retreat for others and a spiritual home for themselves. They opened a free day-school for the convenience of their neighbors. This was a new thing, and it helped largely to increase the respect of the townsfolk for the strangers. Their charity and devotion in teaching gratis these children, their pious attendance at church with their flock of boarders, their grave and retired lives and dress, and the winning kindness of their manners to those that sought them out and required their help soon became known beyond the town. Their interior life of pray er, obedience, and austerity was also whispered abroad with admiration and wonder as the source from which such exterior good proceeded. Their exemplary lives attracted so many pious ladies that their quarters soon became too small. Nor was the sphere of their activity confined to Saint Omer. Mary made several visits to England to establish relations between her family and friends and the new community. Others of the society and some ex terns likewise labored in England, sending young girls to be educated, and others of mature years to be prepared for the religious state, and others still to be saved from heresy and vice. So successful were the efforts of these noble ladies that new houses were established at Liege and afterward at Cologne and Treves.
During the early years of the community they did not live under any of the rules followed by communities then existing. After examining them all Mary decided to model the rule of her house on that of St. Ignatius. Work in and for England was the great object that each member of the new institute had at heart. This included the education of young girls committed to their charge. Papal enclosure, under which at that time scholars became cloistered like nuns for the period of their residence at the convent, would be a bar to their designs; so nothing was left but to try a new plan of action. This was not an easy thing to do. Women had been up to this time cloistered nuns, and troubles were plenty enough without defending innovations. Besides, all attempts at an active religious life among women up to this time had ended in restricting them to the cloister. Nor was it believed that a woman could direct more than a single house.
In spite of all Mary and her companions persevered. Their work was worthy of sacrifice. Guided by the highest motives, in spite of poverty and exile they opened additional houses which God turned into pillars of light to lead back wanderers to the true fold. Their aspirations were to engage in works of charity without, and at the same time to serve God in the religious state; and he sanctified their work. The result was the flourishing houses of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary in England and Ireland.
- “Mary Ward, Foundress of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin”. , 1884. CatholicSaints.Info. 7 January 2017. Web. 26 February 2017. <>