About Mary Ward

Mary Ward portraitMary Ward (1585-1645)

As a Mary Ward School, our school ethos is firmly rooted in the example given to us in the life and achievements of Mary Ward.

We proudly place the Values of a Mary Ward School at the heart of our forward-looking approach to education. The life of Mary Ward is a positive role-model for our students and through her legacy we enjoy connections with Mary Ward Schools around the world.

Our Mary Ward scholarship is awarded to students who show commitment to our school ethos through their actions in spirituality, religion, work for justice, charity, chaplaincy and community.


Her life and times

Mary Ward was an early 17th century ‘Religious’ devoted to the service of God and a pioneer of women’s education.

Early years

Mary Ward lived in an age of religious intolerance in which deviation from whichever faith tradition was in the ascendant was savagely persecuted. She was born in 1585 in Yorkshire of staunchly Catholic stock. At this time, Catholics were persecuted in England but some did fight back: her two maternal uncles, John and Christopher Wright, were Gunpowder Plotters.

Moreover, within the Catholic Church at that time, women were considered to be weak and fickle creatures, capable only of the married state, or a strictly cloistered religious life. However, Mary felt that there was no difference between what women and men might achieve if they were given equal opportunities for education. This breath-taking vision was aptly summed up in her magnificently audacious ‘sound-bite’: “I hope in God it will be seen that women in time to come will do much.”

A champion

Mary herself possessed all the qualities of a true Yorkshire woman: courage, tenacity, deep faith, cheerfulness and a forthright common sense. In 1609 Mary dared to found an order of religious women modelled on the Society of Jesus, with a freedom from religious enclosure and a readiness for apostolic works which would put them at the direct service of the Church.

“I hope in God it will be seen that women in time to come will do much.”

She set up communities and schools in many cities in Europe, and her members were sent under cover on the English Mission to support the Catholic priests. This was 250 years before Miss Buss and Miss Beale laboured for women’s secondary education and at university.

With a few companions, she walked the 1500 miles from Flanders to Rome to present her plans for her Institute personally to three different Popes, and she appeared several times before the Cardinals to plead her cause. This adventurous step into the unfamiliar aroused fierce opposition from within the Catholic Church, and in 1631 Mary Ward’s Institute was suppressed by Pope Urban VIII, and she herself was described as a heretic and imprisoned for a time by the Inquisition because of her views which were radical for the time.

In 1639, some years after the Suppression, she returned to her native Yorkshire, and lived with a few of the original companions, outside York and died on January 30th 1645 still sticking by her convictions and her faith despite the two often having been in opposition to each other.

Her legacy and path to sainthood

Through the loyalty of Mary Ward’s companions, her Institute grew into two branches, now known by different names, including the Congregation of Jesus, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Loreto.


Mary Ward’s Institute did not receive the definitive approval of the Church until 1877, or the acknowledgement of Mary Ward as Foundress until 1909. 100 years later, in December 2009, Pope Benedict XVI formally published a Decree recognising the ‘heroic virtue’ demonstrated by Mary Ward and conferred on her the title ‘Venerable’. This is the first step of three towards canonization: that is being recognised as a Saint in the Catholic Church.

Her legacy

In the four centuries following her death, girls’ schools which follow Mary Ward’s vision have confidently sprung up worldwide.

At St Mary's, we are fortunate to have the ideals propounded by Mary Ward at the heart of our education. With a Foundress of such repute, it is fitting that our buildings in Cambridge also capture histories that include elements of female emancipation, social work, and individuals who spoke up for truth and integrity.

Mary Ward Schools continue to be founded today: most recently in Zimbabwe and Pakistan and we support the establishment of Catholic Christian schools for girls overseas, as part of our duty to the legacy of our Foundress.

© Geistliches Zentrum Maria Ward Augsburg, Foto Tanner, Nesslwang