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Mary Ward

Mary Ward was an English Catholic reformer who founded female religious communities dedicated to charitable works and education for girls. During the English Renaissance, schools for girls were all but non-existent. In 1609 Ward opened the first free public school for English girls and local French girls in Saint-Omer, France. Unlike traditional monastic schools, Ward's schools followed a more secular humanist tradition, reminiscent of boys' schools that had already been around for some time.

After the initial success of the school at Saint-Omer, several other schools were opened throughout Europe; nevertheless, such a school was not established in England until 1686 because of religious persecution and the civil war.

Ward also attempted to reform vocational possibilities for catholic women, but was unsuccessful largely because of the opposition of male church officials. Her educational project also entailed the creation of a new religious order, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was non-monastic and non- cloistered. The members of the order did not wear habits, but dressed in modest ordinary clothes. Like the male Jesuits, Ward's new order served communities through teaching and pastoral care, and in fact Ward closely modeled the oaths for her new order on those of the Jesuits. Yet male religious institutions, especially the Jesuits, rejected the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary because they clashed in their beliefs on the role of women within society and the family.

Her Writings

Mary Ward left behind a large number of writings pertaining to her life and Institute. These writings cover her life as a young girl in England, her early religious life in France as a member of the more traditional Poor Clares, and her establishing of her new non-cloistered order:

About this time, in the year of 1611 I fell sick in great extremity. Being somewhat recovered (by a vow I made to go in pilgrimage to our Blessed Lady of Sichem), and being alone in some extraordinary repose of mind, I heard distinctly, not by sound of voice but intellectually understood, these words: "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. These few words gave so great light in that particular Institute, comfort and strength, and changed so the whole soul, as that [it was] impossible for me to doubt but that they came from him whose words are works.