The Venerable Mary Ward

Plaque on the Bar Convent, Blossom St, York, YO24 1AQ

The Venerable Mary Ward was born on 23 January 1585 at Mulwith, near Ripon in North Yorkshire, the eldest of the seven children of Marmaduke Ward and Ursula Wright, both from Yorkshire Roman Catholic families of the minor gentry. Marmaduke was bailiff to Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland and he managed the Percy properties in Spofforth, near Wetherby, as well as his own estate at Mulwith. As a prominent nobleman in the court of Elizabeth I, the 9th Earl was nominally a Protestant. However, the Percy family was still mostly Catholic and it was widely believed that Henry was a Catholic sympathiser.

Persecution of Catholics

This was a difficult time for Roman Catholics in England. Pope Pius V had excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I in 1570 and thus released her subjects from their allegiance to the monarch. Catholics, therefore, could be regarded as potential traitors and were under suspicion particularly as there were plots surrounding the Queen’s Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, by those who wanted to return England to its pre-Reformation religion. Persecution was widespread. Any ‘Jesuit or seminary priest’ – that is, one who had gone to the continent to be ordained – caught in England would be hanged, drawn and quartered, and there were various penalties for laypeople also, including heavy fines for failure to attend the Anglican Church, imprisonment and even death for offences connected with practising the Catholic faith.

Mary Ward grew up sheltered among close and devoted Catholic relatives. She lived with her grandparents, Robert and Ursula Wright, on their estate in Holderness in the East Riding of Yorkshire for five years from 1590 but moved back to Mulwith when her grandfather was in his last illness. Soon afterwards the house at Mulwith was completely destroyed by fire, so her immediate family moved to the Percy estate at Alnwick in Northumberland. Mary, however, did not go with them. Instead she went to live with other relatives, first in Nidderdale and then, from 1600 to 1606, with the Babthorpes at Osgodby near Selby. Theirs was a highly religious household, with a priest secretly in residence and a daily regime of prayer and instruction. While here, at the age of 15, Mary first came to feel that God was calling her to a religious life.

Her family was against the idea, saying she must marry. There were various suitors for her hand, the last and most important being Edmund Neville, the Catholic claimant to the forfeited earldom of Westmorland, but Mary refused them all. The failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was to have an adverse effect on the entire Catholic community in England. Two of Mary’s mother’s brothers and a brother-in-law were killed trying to escape after the event. A member of the Percy family, Thomas, was one of the five conspirators in the Gunpowder plot. He was shot dead whilst trying to escape. The Earl of Northumberland was implicated and spent 17 years in the Tower of London

Order of the Poor Clares

Mary left England for Saint-Omer, in the then Spanish Netherlands, now in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France. A college for English Jesuits had been founded here in 1593 and, on the advice of one of the brothers, Mary was admitted as a novice extern sister with the Walloon Poor Clares, a contemplative order of Catholic nuns. In 1608 she returned to England to found a Poor Clare convent for Englishwomen. Mary, still a novice, was for a time content with her life in the convent. However, in May 1609, she received the first of a series of God-given insights which inspired her to change her way of life, although she was not sure which direction it would take.

In England, Mary had experience of the ‘underground’ work for the Catholic Church which was possible for women. She went back to Saint-Omer with a small group of friends to live in community, pray and seek God’s will for them, and to open a school for girls. More precise guidance came in 1611 from another insight: ‘ “Take the same of the Society.” So understood as that we were to take the same both in matter and manner, that only excepted which God by diversity of sex hath prohibited.’ Though she was clear that there was no question of her sisters becoming priests, in every other way she felt that the Jesuit way of life, travelling anywhere where the pope felt they were needed, helping the sick, teaching the faith and founding new schools and universities, was exactly what God was urging her to do.

Conflict with the Catholic Church

However, the Council of Trent, meeting between 1545 and 1563, had ruled that all nuns should be in enclosed convents. This ruling was to be the fundamental reason for the rejection of her plan by the Church authorities. The founder of the Jesuit order, St Ignatius Loyola, had also forbidden the formation of a female branch of his society, but Mary Ward declared, ‘There is no such difference between men and women that women may not do great matters … and I hope in God it will be seen that women in time to come will do much.’

Mary spent much time drawing up an outline constitution for her society which she was determined to present to Pope Gregory XV. In October 1621, she and a small group of companions set out on foot to cover the 1,500 miles to Rome, including the long journey across the Alps, arriving in the city on Christmas Eve. The pope did not deal with the petition for approval in person, but passed it on to his bishops who had come to no decision by the time he died in July 1623.

Mary stayed in Rome and founded a school there in 1622, adding to the four already operating in the north of France at Saint-Omer, Liège, Cologne and Trier in the Rhineland. Two more schools in Italy were to follow: Naples (1623) and Perugia (1624). The commission appointed by the new pope, Urban VIII, to consider her request produced no answer, but it closed her school in Rome in summer 1625. Mary, seeing that there was nothing else she could do in Rome, travelled north to Munich and, at the request of the Elector of Bavaria, Maximilian I, founded a school there in 1627. The same year another school was opened in Vienna and one in Pressburg (Bratislava) in 1628.

Mary returned to Rome in early 1629 to present another petition to Urban VIII. Although he was outwardly friendly, both he and his commission of cardinals had already decided to suppress her society, though nothing was ever said to Mary and her sisters. The community in Naples was closed in 1629 and those at Liège, Saint-Omer, Cologne and Trier in 1630-1. Although the Saint-Omer house had already been suppressed in January 1630, Mary was still convinced that the pope was supportive and she wrote a letter in April to her communities in Liège, Cologne and Trier telling them to disregard any orders of suppression since they came not from the Pope but from a cardinal who was their enemy. She also sent one of her first companions, Winefrid Wigmore, as ‘Visitor’ to the northern houses. Winefrid encouraged the sisters to obey Mary as their superior and not to listen to the Papal Nuncio which inflamed the situation further.

Imprisoned by the Inquisition

In 1631 Pope Urban VIII issued a Papal Bull describing Mary as a heretic and declared her religious order, called the ‘English Jesuitesses’, null and void. The Inquisition decided she was to be imprisoned in a Poor Clare convent in Munich. Here she was locked in a small, dirty, cold cell with a single companion, Anne Turner, to be her nurse as she was in poor health. She was not allowed to speak to the nuns of the convent or to have writing materials. In defiance, Mary communicated with members of her own community via lemon-juice letters using the fruit and wrapping paper from the food and laundry parcels they were able to send to her. Twenty-three of these letters have survived.\

Mary’s health deteriorated and a doctor was allowed to attend her but her life was in the balance. However, she rallied and was allowed to return to her own Munich convent under orders to return to Rome for trial. She set out from Munich in October 1631 and arrived in Rome the following March. She was not tried but threw herself on the mercy of the pope, who acknowledged that she was not a heretic. He did not rescind any of the terms of his Bull of 1631, however, and insisted that Mary should not leave Rome without permission from the Inquisition, under whose authority she remained. Eventually, in the summer of 1637, she was allowed to travel first to Spa, near Liège, to seek relief from the pain of the kidney stones from which she had suffered for some time and from there she travelled on to England, reaching London in May 1639.

The Bar Convent

Return to York

England was in turmoil; the Civil War was breaking out and anti-Catholic feeling was running high. Mary, her companions and some of the children entrusted to their charge, travelled north in the spring of 1642 and settled first in Hutton Rudby in Cleveland, then in Heworth, at that time a village just outside York. Having sought refuge within the city during the siege of York in 1644, they returned to Heworth where Mary died on 30 January the following year. She was buried in the churchyard at Osbaldwick on the eastern edge of York. Her tombstone may still be seen, now inside the church of St. Thomas there.

After the Bull of 1631, many of the former members returned to their families but a small number remained to live and pray together. Little by little, officially as lay-women, they began to teach again. So, slowly, Mary Ward’s Institute crept back into existence. It was not until 1877, however, that the Roman Catholic Church confirmed Mary Ward’s foundation under the name ‘Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary’, and she was not named as its foundress until 1909. In 2003, the full Jesuit Constitutions were adopted, along with the name ‘Congregation of Jesus’, fulfilling Mary’s instruction that ‘the denomination of Ours must be of Jesus’. Its communities are now spread throughout the world. The Bar Convent on Blossom Street in York is its oldest house in England. It was founded in 1686 by Frances Bedingfield, an early member of Mary Ward’s Institute, who came to York at the invitation of a local Catholic landowner, Sir Thomas Gascoigne, who gave her £450 to found a school for girls outside Micklegate Bar. The building has been enlarged and adapted over the centuries and the work of the community has extended but in living continuity with Frances Bedingfield’s foundation.

On 19 December 2009, Pope Benedict XVI published a decree recognizing the ‘heroic virtue’ shown by Mary Ward and conferred on her the title ‘Venerable’.

For those wishing to learn more about Mary Ward there is an excellent exhibition at the Bar Convent.


Sister Gregory Kirkus CJ, Mary Ward (Editions du Signe, 2008)

Susan O’Brien, ‘Ward, Mary (1585-1645)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2005, accessed 7 September 2016)


I am extremely grateful to the Sisters of the Congregation of Jesus at York’s Bar Convent for the list of sources and for their corrections, additions and amendments to my article about their foundress.

© Dinah Tyszka