In the Footsteps of Mary Ward

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The Bar Convent is home to sisters from the Congregation of Jesus, a community founded in the seventeenth century by Mary Ward, a hugely progressive Yorkshire woman. She believed that women were capable of great things and wanted her religious order to work in the community and to be self-governing.

She crossed the Alps on foot to reach Rome and ask the Pope for his approval, which was not forthcoming. One of the newest members of the CJ, Sister Theo Hawksley, recently retraced part of Mary Ward’s journey over the mountains. She describes her trip, and explains more about what Mary Ward did.

“As you reach top of the stairs in the Bar Convent Living Heritage Exhibition, you come face to face with a wonderful drawing of Mary Ward and her companions crossing the Alps, by local illustrator Nick Ellwood.

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We know that Mary Ward and her companions made the crossing over the Alps four times, always in winter. On the first of these journeys, in 1621, Mary Ward was just thirty-six. She was walking to Rome to ask to the Pope to give his approval for the new way of life she had begun with her companions.

In those days, if you wanted to be a nun you had to be ‘enclosed’, which meant a secluded life of prayer inside a monastery. Mary Ward and her companions wanted something different: an active life of serving God in the world. Mary Ward was far ahead of her time, however, and when she made the journey back north over the Alps in 1626, she had already encountered the first problems: instead of approving of her new community, the Pope closed the houses and schools she had started in Italy.

In July, I spent two weeks retracing Mary’s steps from Feldkirch in Austria, where we know she spent Christmas Eve in 1626, to Innsbruck, where she arrived on 4th January 1627. My pilgrimage companion was Britta, a novice from the Congregation of Jesus’ Middle European Province.

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Before we set out, we visited the CJ community in Alltöting, where we saw Mary Ward’s pilgrim hat and shoes, of which you can see a replica in the Living Heritage Exhibition. Later, as we nursed our tired feet, I remembered that Mary walked an average of 30km a day in those shoes.

As we crossed the highest point of the route, at just over 1800m, we could see snow and glaciers on the surrounding peaks, and we imagined Mary Ward making this journey in the depths of winter. In each village where we stopped for the night, we noticed buildings that would have been there in Mary Ward’s time.

The pilgrimage brought me close to Mary Ward in a new way, and gave me new respect for her determination and resilience, and new gratitude for the hope that led her to cross the Alps and found new communities in Munich and Vienna, which endure to this day.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Mary Ward, and even seeing some replicas of the hat and shoes she wore on her Alpine crossing, the Bar Convent Exhibition is open six days a week.

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