17th Century “Feminist” to be Declared Venerable

by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

The Vatican has announced that Mary Ward, a British nun and vocal proponent of women’s rights, who founded the Institute of Mary sisters in the 17th century, will be declared “Venerable.”

According to a report by London’s Daily Mail, the announcement came last week after cardinals of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints concluded unanimously that Mary War had lived a blameless life.

Mary Ward was born in 1585 and lived duringthe turbuletn reign of Queen Elizabeth 1 when Catholics were being persecuted. At the age of 15, she entered the Poor Clares as a lay sister, but felt called to an active rather than a contemplative life.

She was 24 when she found herself surrounded by a band of devoted companions who devoted themselves to opening schools which allowed female students – a novelty at the time.

Also unusual for the time was the type of religious community they decided to found in 1609. Patterned after the Society of Jesus, its members were not cloistered and could respond to the needs of the time. Mary Ward’s vision was to enable women to do for the Church in their proper field what men had done for it in the Society of Jesus, and she soon managed to establish houses throughout Europe. 

However, she soon ran afoul of the Inquisition. While in Germany in 1631 she was brought before Inquisitors and charged with heresy, schism, and rebellion. She served a three month jail term and was ordered to shut down her order.

But Mary Ward had many friends in the Church, including the General of the Society of Jesus, Father Mutio Vitelleschi. Also counted among her admirers were Popes Paul V, Gregory XV and Urban VIII.

In 1629, she was permitted to plead her cause before the congregation of cardinals in Rome, but failed to convince them. Her order – now being referred to as the “ Jesuitesses” – was officially suppressed.

Within a decade, Pope Urban once again invited her to Rome and, under the protection and supervision of the Holy See, allowed her to start a new institute. In 1639, she returned with the Pope’s blessing to England and settled with her sisters in York, where she died of natural causes in 1645. 

Today, her order has 4,000 sisters around the world, some of whom taugth Pope Benedict XVI during his childhood in Bavaria.

“It is absolutely wonderful,’ said Sister Gemma Simmonds, a member of Mary Ward’s order, about the news that her foundress’ cause was moving forward.

”Mary Ward was a very important pioneer in  the history of the role of women in  the  Church,” Sister Gemma told the Daily Mail.

“I want justice for her. She was severely  persecuted by the Church that she  tried to serve so  faithfully. At a time when we are still trying to work out in concrete detail the role of  women in the Church this would be a very  welcome move.”

She said Ward also deserved  particular recognition for setting up girls’ schools at a time when  women everywhere were treated as second class citizens.

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