Living Heroically: The Life (and Lifestyle) of the Venerable Mary Ward

by | Jun 29, 2024 | Across the Ages

Your entire resignation and full dependence upon the will of God and superiors I far more esteem than if you had the grace of working miracles and lacked these qualities. (Mary Ward, The Heart and Mind of Mary Ward, p. 47-48)


Summer is here! Kids’ swimming lessons, family vacations, and downtime swinging in a hammock under the tree all provide the opportunity to read a good book. There is no better time than the present to embrace the heroes of our Catholic faith. With that in mind, I am excited to introduce you to my hero, the Venerable Mary Ward.  

Like all saints, Mary’s gift to the Church didn’t take the form of secular ideologies or disobedience to the magisterium. Rather, the opposite: Mary shows us how obedience to God and the magisterium is the foundation of true humility, and humility the foundation to all other virtues. The strength of the saints comes not from their own spirit but from their surrender to the Holy Spirit, even when doing so causes great disappointment, confusion, or tension. 

Real strength and courage consists in doing what one knows to be good in all circumstances in which we are placed, and in not letting ourselves be deterred from this good by any opposition. (p. 51)

 Mary Ward formed the original “Jesuitesses”. She was born in 1585, 30 years after the death of St. Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits). Her first spoken word and her dying breath were both the name of Jesus. Born into Protestant England in the beginning of England’s suppression of the Catholic church (which would last 3 centuries), Mary’s family was instrumental in running the underground Catholic church. If you are unfamiliar with this incredible part of our history, I encourage you to find out more! The underground Church consisted of a network of homes, tunnels, etc. across England through which priests would be hidden and transported in order to provide mass from village to village. These homes often had a hiding hole built within their wall, which is a small space just large enough for a priest to sit (with his potty bowl). The priest might live in this hole up to two weeks, and only receive food when it was safe for a family member to quickly slip it through the door (keep in mind, even their servants might be spies and report them). Wealthy families like Mary’s would hold a ball (formal dance) on Sunday to which everyone attended in their formal clothes. The ball would actually be the mass; the masquerade would give reason for a large number of well-dressed Catholics to converge upon a home. Death by public execution was the typical fate of anyone caught facilitating this or practicing their Catholicism.



Suffering without sin is no burden (p. 49)

 It was this setting, this risking of one’s life for the priest and the Eucharist, that formed Mary Ward. From ages 5-10, Mary was sent to live with her super-holy grandmother who herself had been jailed 14 times for practicing Catholicism. For wealthy families like the Wards, a price would be paid for the person’s ‘head’ and the person would be set free. Mary herself suffered being on death row a few times as an adult. 

Thanks to her gifted grandmother, by age 10 Mary was fluent in Latin, the Bible, and the Church fathers. Thanks to having Jesuit priests hiding in her home, it is believed she was also formed in the Ignatian exercises as by age 15 she was practicing the Ignatian examen twice daily and was known to carry the little book Spiritual Warfare by Lorenzo Scupoli (now a classic). Although her parents wanted her to marry, she knew from an early age she was called to the religious life as a bride of Jesus. Long story short, after several years and twists on her journey, Jesus informed her she was to take the same as the Jesuits, meaning to start a similar order for women. At that time, religious women were only to be cloistered and would only be seen publicly if begging for alms. Otherwise, women were to be seen and not heard; not speak unless spoken to. So Mary’s calling went against everything in European culture of the time and she suffered tremendously for it but never gave in. 

If I do what my Master (God) sent me for, what imports it whether I recover (from illness)? (p. 50)

Sickly since childhood, Mary lived a long life and is often pictured walking with a walking stick as she would walk great lengths to get where God was leading her. There was never any question of her extreme holiness even though her religious community itself was persecuted and eventually suppressed. A true mystic, her union with Jesus manifested into her unflinching following of God’s will. She had perfect discernment and wisdom, and was so enveloped in the Holy Spirit that entering into a room of angry shouting men, they immediately calmed down in her presence. Can you imagine how life would change carrying that grace into your family’s dinner table? 😊

Her institutes were kept alive and formalized in the late 1800’s as the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM). This is the order that formed Mother Teresa until Jesus called Mother to a whole new way of living for Him. Mother Teresa loved Mary Ward. 

Like all saints, Mary’s story is one of perfect respect and obedience to the Magisterium. The quintessential biography was written in 1882 by Sr. Mary Catherine Elizabeth Chambers IBVM, edited by Fr. Henry James Coleridge SJ. Volume one is here and volume two is here. I kept this little book in my purse for years, reading some of her sayings every day. Meanwhile, The Spirit of Mary Ward by Mother Pauline Parker is a treasure with some details I’ve not seen elsewhere (imprimatur 1963). Finally, “Till God Will” has a forward by Mother Teresa. And for exciting reading on the underground Catholic Church in England try Supremacy and Survival.

 Always receive the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar with such devotion, as if it were to be your Viaticum, and offer it with this intention. (p. 57)

 How often I still find myself distracted in mass thinking about peoples, places, things, the grocery list, errands to run, and more. All I need do is call to mind those priests in their hiding holes and that for centuries Catholics literally risked their life just to attend a single Catholic mass. Puts everything into perspective. 

Care not for what concerns your own person, but stand up zealously for whatever touches God and His honor. (p. 59)

 Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam 😊



(Images: The Painted Life of Mary Ward: #46 praying for companion in vocation crisis; #33 vision of the few just souls who go to Heaven and the many lost souls; both from Wikimedia)



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