Happy birthday Mary! Is this courageous pioneer York’s first feminist?

The amazing Mary Ward. Images: Bar Convent
23 Jan 2017 @ 5.07 pm
| Entertainment, History

York is connected with many key figures in English history, from Roman Emperors to railway barons.

Bar Convent exhibition

17 Blossom Street, York, YO24 1AQ

Open Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm

Adults £4.50, conc £3.50, children 6-15 £2, under-6 free, family ticket £10

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But how many people have heard of Mary Ward, the seventeenth century Yorkshire nun, regarded by many as being as radical as Galileo and who came close to being burned at the stake by the Inquisition?

This week marks both her birthday (23rd January 1585) and the anniversary of her death (30th January 1645). But just who was she and why was she regarded as a heretic?

Her own movement

Mary Ward was born near Ripon to a staunchly Catholic family at a time when it was illegal to practise the faith in England. Despite numerous wedding proposals from eligible gentlemen she had a calling to become a nun.

After spending some time with an order in France she decided she wanted to form her own movement, modelled on the Society of Jesus (the Jesuit Priests).

In Mary’s “Congregation of Jesus” the sisters would live in the open, be active in the community, run schools for girls and be self-governing.

In 1617 she said:

There is no such difference between men and women that women may not do great matters…

This was too much for the Catholic Church to handle and Pope Urban banned the C.J. Schools that Mary had founded across northern Europe.

They were shut down and she was imprisoned for a while in Munich.

Remarkable legacy

A portrait of Mary Ward by Augsburg

But she would not take no for an answer, walking across the Alps twice to lobby the Vatican. On her last visit to Rome friends warned her that the Inquisition was after her, to be burned as a heretic.

She escaped arrest and eventually returned to England, to live in Heworth in York. She died in 1645, never seeing her movement expand across the globe, giving the world such figures as Mother Theresa of Calcutta.

The Vatican eventually gave the Congregation of Jesus its backing but it was not until the year 2000 that they were finally allowed to use the name, as it played too much on the Society of Jesus – the Jesuit Order.

Forty-one years after Mary’s death a group of CJ sisters opened the Bar Convent in York. And it is within the convent’s interactive exhibition, opened in 2015, that you can learn more about her and the legacy she left behind.

There are girls across the globe who owe their chance of an education to the Yorkshire nun who refused to obey the rules.