The Holy Scriptures of Mary Ward



To our readership: the following text has to be understood as a fiction based on a research article written by Christiana Moss. We are two ECMA students who chose to work on a paper that drew our attention for numerous reasons. The first one is that nothing sems to be found online about its writer, nothing but a thin veil of mystery surrounding this piece of work. Secondly, in this text many themes such as feminism, the concept of patriarchy, concerns about equality between men and women in religion and the use of language to subvert the attempts made to silence a stubborn nun inspired us. Now it is your turn, plunge into the retelling we have prepared for you and discover the figure of Mary Ward – a Catholic nun whose words survived over the centuries through her literary legacy.

In the beginning was the Word, and with the Word was Mary Ward (23 January 1585 – 30 January 1645). At least, this is the revelation that came upon us, two female ECMA students, who studied this paper written by Christiana Moss[1]. Even though there is nothing much we can say about the author herself, the figure she decided to work on, that is to say Mary Ward, is quite fascinating. Being a woman in the 17th century meant that your voice was worth very little; in order to be heard, it was better to be born a man. And in England it could be worse – you could be a Catholic woman, discriminated against because of both your faith and your sex. Women were perceived as naïve, child-like creatures who could not do much but obey men, and this consideration was perceived as general knowledge in the patriarchal society of that time. Even in the Church, nuns were submitted to the authority of priests, yearning for equality was impossible, and at that time, few wished for it.

In this particular context, Mary Ward stands out. In a society where women were supposed to conform to ‘the stereotype of the silent woman’ this nun claimed, that ‘women may be perfect as well as men.’ The initiative to fund an Institute, modelled on the Ignatian Society of Jesus, and educate women to reinforce their spiritual connection to God, came to her a night of 1611.[2] With that new perspective on life, she undertook the project; she defended that education was the key towards spiritual freedom and equality. In her text, Moss mentions that Ward managed to establish several Jesuit-like Institutes (The Congregation of Jesus and The Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1609) for women in order to develop nuns’ senses of “justice, virtue and sincerity.” Then, from 1612 to 1628, she opened ten establishments in many European cities.[3] In order to make a change she found the way to gather a community of supporters who defended her point of view and spread her ideas, one of her closest friends, Winefrid Wigmore, also helped her in the creation of her schools and acted as her secretary in the underground network they had established.
Still, a woman who dared to impose her God-inspired vision of the world and put into question the hierarchy between men and the second sex[4] was considered, as Moss explains it, to be a ‘threatening the stability of the Church […].’ This tricky situation would often put her in a dead-end: most of the time her requests for the formation of nuns would be dismissed by her superiors, or she would be vilified for having an opinion. The rhetoric used by Protestants to belittle Catholic women would even be used from men sharing the same faith as her, who would depict her as a deceitful creature able to trick others with her false angelic looks, or else with other misogynist names supposed to undermine her intellectual capacities. The pamphlet written by Henri Compton[5], a Protestant of that era, summarizes the stereotypes which were attached to the Jesuits and the ones who worked with them. From a more modern perspective, Frances Dolan also points out that ‘the nun was the figure of fun – the archetypal foolish woman’.[6] Mary Ward was also criticized by the Catholic Church which stated that womanhood and the mission were two discordant things.[7]

Wikimedia commons – The painted life of Mary Ward

It leads us to the core of Moss’s reflection, -: since Ward was a rebellious woman, she had no choice but to fight with the only weapon she had: her pen which she picked up her pen to denounce inequalities and encourage young ladies not to resign themselves to be less than men before the divine judgment. Ward wanted to show that nuns were equally able to spread the catholic faith and that they could be considered as missionaries. Education was the key to train women in order to reach spiritual equality. In the same way priests had to go into hiding when they were likely to be discovered on their missions, finding their way to hides located ‘between floors, within fireplaces, amidst roof rafters, and between walls’[8] (Jennifer Binczewski), Ward also found a way to disguise her letters, using lemon-juice as ink to conceal her writings. Her attacks, though still polemical, became more concealed in a sense.

One striking example is the one of the codes she used in her letters to reach her secret audience. On the matter, Moss writes the following text:  ‘In the earlier letters individual code words are easily decipherable, the later letters display an increasingly convoluted syntax and structure: they are a written form of a language expressing a self-identity outlawed by patriarchal oppression and itself only fully comprehensible within the terms of that shared self-identity.’ And yet, these codes she shared with her private circle grew into something greater than she may have imagined over the years. Even though it can be conceded that Mary Ward only wanted to promote a literary and educational legacy to young women for the sake of their souls, she also contributed to the emancipation of the female psyche in a patriarchal society. This conference on the 31 July 1998 at South Bank University, that prompted Moss to pen this paper, was made possible thanks to the help of many contributors and among them were members of the Institute of Blessed Virgin Mary. Those are the ones who paid a tribute to the woman who founded their Institute in 1609[9] and now carry her legacy.

And with that, the story comes full circle: the two students we are today and who delved into this paper written by an independent scholar on a nun willing to fight to prove that women can stand as equals to men, are the heirs of her words. We now live in an era that allows us to receive the education and the opportunities that Ward yearned for a long time ago. From now on this story comes to an end – and so does this strange mise-en-abyme. From this tale, that borrows more to reality than fiction, it can be concluded that Ward acted, in her own way, as a sort of unlikely feminist figure who found the strength to bequeath her ideas thanks to her writings. Mary Ward’s international pedagogical movement can be compared to Maria Montessori’s one.[10] An educational system that started with only one institute and which spread throughout Europe.

[1] Moss Christina, ‘ “Women May Be Perfect as Well as Men”: Self-identity and Patriarchal Oppression in the Writings of Mary Ward and her Followers’ Critical Survey 11.1 (1999), pp. 98- 110

[2] Lux-Sterritt, Laurence « Mary Ward et sa Compagnie de Jésus au féminin dans l’Angleterre de la Contre-Réforme », Revue de l’histoire des religions, 3 | 2008, 393-414.

[3] Ibid., 395.

[4] De Beauvoir, Simone « Le Deuxième Sexe», Paris : Gallimard, 1949.

[5] Compton, Henri “The Jesuites Intrigues: With Private Instructions of that Society to Their Emissaries. The First, Translated Out of a Book Privately Printed at Paris; the Second, Lately Found in Manuscript in a Jesuites Closet, After His Death. Both Sent with a Letter from a Gentleman at Paris to His Friend in London”; 1669.

[6] Dolan, Frances, “Why Are Nuns Funny?”, Huntington Library Quarterly 70. 4 (2007): 511

[7] Lux-Sterritt, Laurence. “Mary Ward et sa Compagnie de Jésus au féminin »: 403.

[8] Binczewski, Jennifer ‘Power in Vulnerability: Widows and Priest Holes in the Early Modern English Catholic Community’, British Catholic History 25.1 (2020)

[9] Official website of the Insitute of the Blessed Virgin Mary; | Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary

[10] Dapsance, Marion. « Mary Ward, une femme jésuite.» Études Septembre, no. 9 (2020): 81–88.

Cite this blog post
Laurence Lux-Sterritt (2022, May 3). The Holy Scriptures of Mary Ward. Britaix 17-18 - Seminar on the early-modern anglophone world (Aix-Marseille University, LERMA, UR 853) . Retrieved May 30, 2024, from

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