Renaissance and Reformation Mary Ward
Victoria Mondelli
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0172


Mary Ward (b. 1585–d. 1645), founder of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary [IBVM], one of the first institutions created for the advanced education of women, was born to a family of recusant Catholics of gentry standing in Yorkshire, England, in 1585, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Endowed with an excellent education, Ward determined to advance the Catholic cause by developing schools on the Jesuit model that would make a classical education available to women—an ambition that could not be successfully pursued in Protestant England. In 1609, Ward gathered a group of young Catholic Englishwomen who accompanied her to Saint-Omer (modern France) where, in the vicinity of the Jesuit college already existing there, she founded the first house of her institute, complete with a boarding school for English girls and a day-school for local girls. This first foundation she expanded into a European network of schools headed by lay female teachers—the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The first foundations of the Institute were at Saint-Omer (modern France), Liège (Belgium), Cologne and Trier (Rhineland/Germany), Rome, Naples, and Perugia (Italy), Munich (Bavaria/Germany), Vienna (Austria), and Pressburg (Bratislava /Slovakia); eventually some three hundred were constituted, with some schools enrolling as many as five hundred students. Initially, Ward’s institute was encouraged by highly placed officials within the Catholic Church. From the 1620s, however, the institute aroused the suspicions and perhaps the jealousy of other prelates, whose hostility led to its formal suppression, in 1631, by Pope Urban VIII. The institute was denounced for its proposed Jesuit-like hierarchy, its mission to proselytize among heretics and the infidel, and its desire to be both a female religious order and remain unenclosed after the Council of Trent had demanded the full enclosure of women in religious orders. That decision was soon rescinded, and the institute and its offshoots were reaffirmed and its global extension encouraged. But the association of Ward herself with the IBVM was disallowed: in 1749, Pope Benedict XIV issued the decree Quamvis iusto, which prohibited the institute from acknowledging Mary Ward as its founder; in 1909, that ban was lifted. A century later, in 2009, Mary Ward was recognized as venerable by the Catholic Church on account of her “heroic virtue.” The cause for her canonization began in 1929 and remains active. This entry considers works about Ward’s life and mission and places her in the context of contemporary women’s reform movements, English recusancy, and the development of schooling for girls.

Reference Works

Mary Ward could not found a Catholic school for girls in England during her lifetime, but after her death in 1686, the Bar Convent was founded on the model of her continental institutes and continues to operate today. Kirkus 2001 is a biographical dictionary of members and benefactors of the institute in England, which traces its history from the early years of foundation and persecution, the “golden years” of the 18th century, and the 19th-century years of “disaster” and “destruction” at the Bar Convent, a time when Mary Ward was removed from the institute’s history and identity.

  • Kirkus, Gregory, Sr. An I.B.V.M. Biographical Dictionary of the English Members and Major Benefactors (1667–2000). Catholic Record Society Publications 78. London: Catholic Record Society, 2001.

    Compiles the biographies of approximately 325 individual members and major benefactors, as well as eleven active families in the IBVM of England. The introductory essay frames the biographical entries as a collective history of an institute that was underground and decentralized for centuries.

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