MO perilous seas glimpsed 11 through magic casements are more heart-stirring and romantic than the life of Mary Ward. Her own contemporaries thought of romance in terms of knights-errant and courtly love, or of deeds of derring-do on the decks of ships whose holds were stuffed with spices and silver and elephants' tusks.
The story of Mary Ward affords no less purchase for the imagination. For love's sake her life was daily in fee, and she traversed Europe, questing not for gold and ivory but for human souls.
In her blood was the moorland air of her native Yorkshire, and her heart pulsed to the rhythm of the sea-surge of the English coast. She was the instrument, delicate, strong, finely tempered by suffering, planned by God to set women free to work for Him.
Her journeys alone make an incredible tale: thousands of miles. usually on foot, across and across warring Europe, but everywhere she was treated with marked respect by even the wildest soldiery. Hat in hand, they would let her pass where they plundered all other travellers.
On her last and most remarkable journey, from Rome to Yorkshire. she crossed the snow-bound Mont Cenis in December Four of the party lost their lives; Mary and her companions were saved only by the sudden appearance of a dog that led them to safety.
These journeys were all undertaken with the scantiest means and complete trust in God: "I have found a good way to make our monies hold out—to be sure to deny no poor body an alms that shall ask it on the road". These journeys were made in ill-fitting shoes and by a very delicate woman with a permanently injured knee.
So she travelled with gay courage — three times to Rome to plead her cause with the Pope and cardinals, south to Naples. east to Vienna. founding houses— and always, taking in Munich on her way, back to the Netherlands—where, in St. Omer in 1609, she had founded the first house of her Institute. She also crossed the sea ten times to England, a voyage hazardous in every way.
All her life was rounded in with danger, as indeed were the lives of her forebears and relatives. Her father. Marmaduke Ward, a Yorkshire landowner, was a staunch recusant; her great-great-grandfather, Sir Witham Mallory. had stood, sword in hand, several days on end outside his parish church to prevent the Government from bringing heresy inside.
When the house near Ripon where Mary was born burnt down she went to stay with her grandmother Ursula Wright, a heroic woman who had been 14 years in prison for the Faith. Between the ages of 15 and 20. Mary lived with her cousins at Babthorpe near Selby. Lady Babthorpe had been arrested and brought before the Earl of Huntingdon: "When have you gone to the established church?"
"How many Masses have you heard?"
"So many that I cannot count them."
As for Mary herself, no hero of a picaresque novel had more hair breadth escapes. The Archbishop of Canterbury put a price on her head, declaring that he would willingly exchange for her "six or seven Jesuits". Her answer was to call on him and leave her name engraved with a diamond on a window-pane of Lambeth palace.
In London she was im
prisoned for the Faith, and joyfully knelt down in the street to kiss the threshold of the prison.
At her trial she walked composedly up the Guildhall, holding her rosary, in days when even owning one was death.
Priests' hiding-holes, hair shirts under silk dresses, lemon-juice letters, were the background of her life.
Finally, her Institute in its first form was suppressed and she herself imprisoned, by order of the Holy Office, in a foul room, from which her coded letters went out headed "From my palace, not a prison, for so I deem it".
It seems as though from the start the dice were loaded against Mary. It was nut only her being born into a persecuted minority, a situation which toughened and matured Catholic women, but that she set out to found a completely new type of religious life for women, with a rule adapted to unhampered external activity. at the very moment when Rome had just made even more stringent laws of enclosure for religious women.
This was Mary Ward's work and great achievement: She founded convents all over Europe, not of nuns singing Office behind grilles, in houses subject to a Father General, but rather of religious subject to one of their own sex; not enclosed, hut free to go abroad on their apostolic and pastoral work; religious who did not sing Office in choir. So was she ground between the upper and the nether millstones of the Jesuits and the English secular clergy.
Nothing could have been simpler for her, with her companions, than to adopt the rules of some existing order. It seemed, however, "not that which God would have".
Although she had no support from the Jesuits as a whole, in the house opposite in St. Omer their enemies, namely the secular priests in England, jealous of Jesuit influence, implicated the so-called "Jesuitesses" in their violent attacks on and plots against the Society of Jesus.
Never was anyone more spied on: Cardinal Mellino told her himself "I keep not one or two but twenty-five spies over you". One of the inquisitors, a Franciscan set to watch her every movement at San Cassiano, Mary unwittingly chose for her confessor. He thereby obtained such a knowledge of her that the report he sent to Rome was "sufficient not only for her justification, but even for her canonisation".
No one who knew her personally remained her enemy. Her friends ranged from the Pope, who put his own physician at her service, to her very gaolers, who became "her devoted slaves".
Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, who would scarcely speak to a woman, spent hours with Mary Ward. The Archduchess of Brussels, Queen Henrietta Maria of England, the great Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II, all befriended and supported her.
Cardinal Pazmany and Maximilian of Bavaria begged her to found houses in their countries. Holy men like the mystic Dominic of Jes6 Maria found in Mary Ward a kindred spirit. Father John Gerard. Si., suffered much on her behalf.
These were all sufficiently enlightened to see the value of Mary Ward's conception of women as active apostles. The Pope himself agreed that if she would consent to enclosure her Institute would be "a wedge of gold" in the Church.
But liberty of movement and self government were the very essentials for which Mary was striving. Her work was primarliy for England where there could be no conventual life in the early seventeenth century. By her courageous stand, Mary Ward won emancipation for all the active, unenclosed orders and secular institutes today.
To this end, in 1609 Mary, not yet herself aware of the momentousness of the step she was taking, opened a house for Catholic girls from England, and was assisted in this work by seven spirited companions, all of them living a life of prayer and austerity with a view to finding the will of God.
There was Susannah Rookwood, for example. sister of the Ambrose Rookwood who was executed for his complicity in the Gunpowder Plot. Susannah, who had to fend off the rats with a stick in prison.
There was Mary Poyntz, who presented her lovelorn suitor with a portrait of herself half living, half skull, that he might bethink him of his latter end.
There was Winefrid Wigmore, Mary's intimate and greatest friend, who walked from York to London and back through the snow and Cromwell's armies to get news from Rome for Mary when she lay dying outside York in 1645. .
And there was Mary's own sister Barbara, who died young and is buried in the English College, Rome.
Then came others, including Frances Bedinglield who was to found the Bar Convent, York, which has never ceased to be a school all through penal times to this day. And so the work grew and spread over the continent.
Three hundred years before Miss Buss and Miss Beale, Mary Ward. herself mistress of several languages including Latin, laboured for the higher education of women.
She was ahead of her time in attention to cleanliness, even of the dishes used to serve the poor at the back door. She appreciated fine embroidery for the chapel and took an interest in the music in the liturgy, worthy of our own day. The Liege clergy used to say "they might and did learn of her".
Her womanliness is shown nowhere more than in her personal care for the sick. Her Anglo-Saxon virility may be judged from the following extract from the spirited address which she made to her nuns after the unfortunate remark of the Jesuit Minister: "When all is done they are but women". Her answer was: "There is no such difference between men and women that women may not do great things, as we have seen by the example of many saints who have done great things. And I hope in God it will be seen that women in time to come will do much . . . If women were made so inferior to men in all things, why were they not exempted in all things as they are in some? For what think you of this word, 'but women', but as if we were in all things inferior to some other creature, which I suppose to be
man?. Which I dare to be bold to say is a lie; and with respect to the good Father may say it is an error".
One can see her eyes flashing as she speaks. Hers was no plastercast sanctity. Even when she was driving a donkey, as one of the cardinals remarked, she walked con tam° brio that you would think she was leading a great procession.
People thought she dressed like a queen until they went nearer and saw her garments all darned and patched. Her whole life was a struggle against poverty. Father John Gerard was in disgrace with his superiors for lending her money in those impecunious days in St. Omer when he was rector of the Jesuit house on the other side of the 'Grosse Rue.
When Mary went to Rome to plead for her Institute before the Pope, they could hardly keep up appearances. When she founded in Munich in 1626 she was loath to borrow from her patron Maximillian of Bavaria. After she was imprisoned there in 1631 and her institute suppressed. the great peril was literally starvation. Her semi-coded letters are always of the lack of "yellow silk".
In 1639 Mary returned to England for the last time, and when she died Mary Poyntz lamented their lack of funds to bury her as they could have wished.
The holy ones of God laugh not only in the latter day but here in this work-aday world. "Be merry, you serve a good Master," was Mary's counsel.
She would have her nuns "take care to banish far from them all inordinate sadness, and show always a cheerful temperament", and she even declared that "in our calling, a cheerful mind, a good understanding and a great desire after virtue are necessary, but of all these a cheerful mind is the most so".
On her death-bed when she failed to console her companions, she exclaimed: "Oh, fie, fie! what, still look sad? Come let tis sing and praise God joyfully for all His infinite loving kindness!" And she set the example herself, beginning to sing a hymn of praise and thanksgiving, and singing on as long as she had any breath left.
Her companions in extreme adversity remarked, "Her satisfaction was beyond all sense". The secret was her prayer, "a continual commerce with God as if there had been none living but they two", and her utter devotion to the Will of God.
"Be not content only to love God, but strive to be wholly lost in His love. Give thyself entirely to thy Creator, and lend thyself only, so to speak, to creatures". No one has better defined the apostolic vocation.
A sweet courtesy marked all her dealings with others. The word "courtesy" occurs many times in her exhortations: "Ours should be as courteous towards each other as if they were strangers". And again: "The spirit of God is not illmannered, but teaches all courteousness".
Such was Mary Ward, the only English foundress of a teaching order, who died in 1645 and was buried at Osbaldwick, the little village outside York, where "the minister was honest enough to be bribed". Now the exact site of the grave is unknown and her daughters have no relics.
Nevertheless, the thousands of members of her Institute pray daily for the canonization of .her whom Pope Pius XII called -Mary Ward. that woman beyond compare. given to the Church by England in its most sombre and bloodstained hours".