The first sister of feminism

She threw off her habit and put women on the stage. Simon Caldwell tells the tale of the feisty nun set to become a saint

In 1631, an exhausted 46-year-old woman arrived at the gates of the Vatican. Mary Ward, a Yorkshire-born nun, had walked more than 1,500 miles from her order in present-day Belgium to Rome, knowing that she might end up in prison.

For more than two decades, she had been leading an order of devotees that lived in defiance of the Vatican's strict rules that confined nuns to their cloisters.

Ward had taught her religious sisters not to wear habits and trained them to work with the poor and the persecuted, and to found and teach in Catholic schools. She also encouraged women to perform in plays, a move considered scandalous in Shakespearean times when all female roles were played by boys.

She was living at the height of the Roman Inquisition where accusations of heresy abounded. The pope at the time was Urban VIII, the same pontiff who threw Galileo in prison for daring to suggest that the Earth orbited around the Sun.

Now this revolutionary woman had gone to Rome asking him for official approval of her rebellious order which lived in defiance of centuries of Catholic teaching.

It was, therefore, perhaps of little surprise that Urban threw Ward in jail and issued a papal bull ordering her movement to be suppressed.

But now the same institution that declared her a "heretic" has taken the first decisive step towards making Ward a saint. A panel of Vatican theologians from the Commission of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has concluded that Ward lived a life of "heroic virtue". They are recommending that she should be declared "Venerable" – the first major step toward recognition as a saint.

Ward was born in Ripon in 1585 to a staunchly religious family at a time when Catholicism was under persecution. Two of her relatives were involved in the Gunpowder Plot and as a young girl she spent much of her life on the run.

At age 15 she crossed the Channel to become a Poor Clare, a strictly orthodox Franciscan order of nuns who led a life of prayer and penury. But she soon grew tired of the rigid strictures placed on Catholic nuns and in 1609 founded her own order at St Omer. Based on the Jesuits, her sisters were highly active within their community and believed in educating young women and preserving Catholicism across the Channel – an increasingly dangerous task.

Most controversial was Ward's insistence that women should be allowed to act in plays, at a time when female roles were almost always played by young men. In England it led to the nuns being derided as "chattering hussies" and caused shock on the Continent, where actresses were viewed with the same contempt as showgirls or prostitutes. Urban also singled this idea out for vehement criticism.

The Pope placed Galileo under arrest a year after meeting Ward, whose supporters argue that she is comparable to Galileo not only in the way she was treated but because her ideas were just as revolutionary.

Sister Gemma Simmonds, a member of the Congregation of Jesus, the name by which Ward's order is known today, said: "The Church has apologised for its treatment of Galileo and there is a statue of him in Rome. We are still waiting. Mary Ward had a vision of what women could do in the Church and in society not only decades but centuries before anyone else saw it. She was given this insight directly by God."

Sister Simmonds, who lectures in theology at Heythrop College, the University of London, believes that Ward should be regarded as a feminist icon for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

"She had a vision of the equality of men and women before God and a vision of the capacity of women to do good and to work for the kingdom of God," she said. "She had this at a time when universities were still discussing whether women had souls.

"She was ferociously persecuted by the Church and she submitted to this because she had to. But she never grew bitter and she never allowed a word of bitterness or resentment against those who persecuted her to appear in her writings. Even in prison, even when they thought she was dying, she never lost that extraordinary gift of hope and trust in God. I want her to be canonised. I want justice for her and I want the justification for what women can do in the Church." Ward spent a year in prison in Munich and after her release, she ordered that the Pope's wishes to close down her order be carried out. She died in 1645 in the siege of York during the English Civil War and was buried in the parish church of Osbaldwick, on the outskirts of York. In the century that followed, English nuns persuaded various popes to lift the suppression on the order but they would only do so on the condition that Ward was not recognised as its foundress.

Then in the 1900s, a French member of the order, Sister Magdalen Gremion, asked Pope Pius X to his face to restore Ward as foundress. He immediately denounced Ward as a heretic but later concluded that there was no case against her.

His successor, Pope Pius XI, opened Ward's cause for sainthood in 1932, and Pope Pius XII later praised her as an "incomparable woman".

Father Peter Gumpel, the Rome-based Jesuit who is in charge of the cause, said that he expected Pope Benedict XVI to declare Ward "Venerable" by next year.

The bishops and cardinals of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints will first review the decision of the theologians and scrutinise a 5,500-page position paper on Ward's life. "I expect the decision to be unanimous in favour of the cause progressing," said Father Gumpel. "I think it would be very strange if the cardinals and bishops disagreed with the view of the theologians and I have no reason to think that they would do that."

Today, Ward's order has about 4,000 sisters in two branches – the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Loreto sisters, and the Congregation of Jesus – working in every continent, and in places as far afield as Cuba, Siberia, outer Mongolia and East Timor.

Suggested Topics
News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits