The Most Significant Woman You’ve Never Heard Of…

It’s Mary Ward Week at The Bar Convent – with her birthday on the 23rd and the anniversary of her death on the 30th. But just who was she and what connection does she have to the convent?

Mary Ward

“She’s the woman who opened our science block.”

That’s how a pupil at All Saints School once answered the question, “Do you know who Mary Ward was?”

It’s unlikely Mary did open the school’s science block, given that she died in 1645, but it does illustrate how little is known about a woman who sowed the seeds of the Bar Convent – even among those who are educated in the long shadow that she casts. Mary gave the world the concept of nuns as missionaries, teachers and community workers, and pioneered both gender equality and education. And in doing all this she went up against the might of her own Church and the Inquisition. If you want to know how she connects to the Bar Convent – she founded the movement that founded the house and whose members still live here.

She was born in Mulwith near Ripon on January 23rd 1585, to a keen Catholic family – her uncles John and Christopher Wright were part of the Gunpowder Plot. At a young age, Mary had a calling to take up a religious life but that meant leaving England for the continent; under the reformation, the Catholic faith was banned. At first she entered a French convent run by the Poor Clares.

Enclosure – wearing full habits and staying within the confines of an institution – was the order of the day. Mary wanted something different. She was inspired by the Society of Jesus, the Jesuit priests. They were at work in the community, particularly running schools and helping the poor and needy. She founded her own order, the Congregation of Jesus, along similar lines and crucially it was to be self-governing and not answerable to a bishop.

This did not go down well with the hierarchy of the Church. In 1631 Mary’s institute was banned, with the Pope signing an official decree – a Papal Bull – to that effect. Despite Mary twice walking from Munich to Rome to lobby the Pope directly, she found herself under threat from the Inquisition, which considered her a heretic. She came close to being burned at the stake in Rome.

Mary Ward crossing The Alps
Mary Ward crossing The Alps

After working her way back across northern Europe and discovering that all the schools she had founded were now disbanded, she came back to England. She went first to London and then to York, where she stayed with friends in Heworth. She died one week after her 60th birthday, on 30th of January 1645. She was laid to rest in the churchyard at Osbaldwick, with the Anglican priest being bribed to allow the burial to take place.

How significant is she? The concept of sisters working in the community comes from Mary. Note the use of that word – sisters – as opposed to nuns. Members of the CJ take different vows from enclosed nuns and this is at the heart of what they do. Across the world they are involved in education (particularly for girls), relief work, helping refugees and the dispossessed, and fighting people-trafficking. Before Mary Ward, such a thing was impossible.

A young woman whom Mary had taught, Frances Bedingfield, became a CJ sister herself and eventually Mother Superior. She opened the Bar Convent in 1686 as a girls’ school. It was the first in York and one of only a handful of girls’ schools in England. This could not have happened without Mary.

Mary's life in pictures
Mary’s life in pictures – The Bar Convent

Forget the (often negative) media portrayal of feminism. If it boils down to equality between the sexes, in education, employment and general life-chances, this gutsy Yorkshire-woman was an original proto-feminist. Her most famous quote is:

“There is no such difference between men and women that women may not do great matters.”

She said that in 1617, two hundred and one years before women in the UK first got the chance to vote (provided they were homeowners). Yet Mary Ward still rarely appears in general history books. You might say there are two types of people: those who think Mary was a hugely significant figure and those who’ve never heard of her.

You can find out more about Mary Ward in The Bar Convent Exhibition.
Illustrations copyright Nick Ellwood.

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