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- Beginnings: Mary Ward
- First Foundation: St-Omer
- Suppression of Mary Ward’s Institute
- Return to England
- Ireland: the Loret(t)o Sisters
- Loretto Sisters in Canada
- Foundation in the United States
- Separation from Ireland
- Expansion in Canada: 1881 – 1958
- Reunion: 2003
Beginnings: Mary Ward
Mary Ward was an Englishwoman who was born in North Yorkshire in 1585, at a time of persecution for Catholics, into a family determined to live their Catholic faith no matter what the cost. Her greatest desire as a young woman was to be a religious, although there were no convents in England at that time, all religious communities having been suppressed by Henry VIII by 1540. Although Mary travelled to Flanders to join an existing community of cloistered sisters, she learned, little by little, that she was called to some other way which would only become clearer to her over time. She returned to England to seek clarity about what work God had for her to do, and in 1609 received inspiration in prayer that, whatever her call, it would be to the Glory of God.
First Foundation: St-Omer
Mary already had a few companions who were engaged with her in various ministries in London, and the little group travelled across the English Channel to St-Omer, in Flanders, to begin to live religious life together and to start a school. It became even clearer to Mary in 1611 what this form of life would be: it was to be modelled on the way of life and the spirituality of the Society of Jesus. In 1621, after much thought and several “Plans” for their way of life, Mary prepared for the authorities in Rome a final document, adapted from a Jesuit source. This ‘Third Plan’ (Institutum I) sketches out a women’s community very closely resembling that of the Society of Jesus, while Mary’s contribution to Ignatian spirituality always reflected her own uniquely feminine experience of God, her Parent of parents and Friend of all friends.
Suppression of Mary Ward’s Institute
Just as the way forward seemed clear, the death of Pope Pius V, for whom the document the ‘Third Plan’ was intended, brought a temporary halt to her careful preparation to seek papal approval; meanwhile, Mary’s enemies began to gather forces for the destruction of Mary’s work. These were churchmen who disapproved of women living an active apostolic religious life, free from the monastic restrictions of the past, as well as various people, clergy and lay, who were opposed to the Jesuits and their influence.
From 1629 onwards, Mary’s communities in Prague, Vienna, Cologne, Trier, northern Italy and eventually Liege were all closed, and the sisters were urged to return to their families or to join other approved religious communities. Only the sisters in Munich survived because of the protection of the Elector Maximilian, although they lived in extreme poverty for a number of years. For several months in the winter of 1631 Mary was imprisoned in a Poor Clare convent in Munich by order of the Inquisition. When she was released, she and several companions went to Rome, where she proclaimed that she was neither disobedient nor a heretic. Although, without approval as a religious congregation, the little group was allowed to open a school in Rome.
Return to England
With papal permission she left Rome in 1638 to travel slowly back to London, where she remained until 1642, establishing a school and working with the ‘underground church’, until difficulties that would eventually lead to the Civil War made it necessary for the little community to travel north to Yorkshire for safety.
Mary died in Hewarth, Yorkshire in January, 1645. Her few companions remained in England until 1650, when they moved with their pupils to Paris. Some of these eventually returned to Munich, while others were invited back into England a few years later.
York, England: the Bar Convent
In 1669, one of the group in Paris, Frances Bedingfield, returned to Yorkshire with a few companions to establish a school. For a time they moved to London, but in 1686, after several other small foundations, moved to a property just outside the walls of the City of York. This new foundation, called the “Bar Convent”, so-named from proximity to Micklegate Bar in the York City walls, was to have tremendous significance for the future of Mary Ward’s community.
Because of the Bull of Suppression of 1631, the community founded by Mary Ward was in a delicate position, with no seal of approval, no formal recognition of its status as a religious congregation and no official title. Gradually it came to be known on the European continent as the English Ladies (Englischen Fraulein) or the Institute of Mary, with a later clarification that the title referred to the Blessed Virgin Mary, not Mary Ward herself.
The Rule was confirmed in 1703 by Pope Clement XI, while the right to self-governance under a General Superior was recognized in 1749 in a decree by Benedict XIV. It was stipulated, however, that this was not the same community of “Jesuitesses” which had been suppressed in 1631, and that Mary Ward could not be called the founder of this religious congregation. Only in 1877, in response to a request from the community in York, was the Institute finally and fully approved, and after major efforts on the part of the IBVM communities and friends, Mary Ward was finally recognised as the founder in 1909.
Ireland: the Loret(t)o Sisters
While the community in York was cut off from Europe by war, and had to exist independently for some time, it nevertheless made an enormous contribution to the spread of the Institute to much of the rest of the world. In 1814, a young woman from Dublin, Frances Ball, attended the school in York from 1803-1808, spent six years at home with her mother, and then responding to an interior inspiration “Seek you first the Kingdom of God”, she returned to York in 1814 to be trained in the community there with the purpose of bringing the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Ireland.
Because of its own precarious position, isolated from the rest of the institute in Europe, the English foundation at York was unable to assume responsibility for a new foundation, so when Frances Teresa Ball and two companions left England in 1821, the community which they would establish in Ireland was independent of any other community of the IBVM. The two communities, the one in York and that of Ireland, maintained a close bond of affection in spite of their separation, a bond still exists today between the York community and all the Loreto houses established around the world.
The name which these early pioneers in Dublin adopted was that of Loret(t)o. It was by this name that all IBVM communities founded from Ireland have been known for over 180 years. The community spread throughout Ireland, and the deeply missionary spirit of the Irish led to a generosity that saw missions established in India (1841), Gibraltar (1845), Mauritius (1845), Canada (1847), Manchester, England (1851), South Africa (1877), Australia (1875), Spain (1889) and Kenya (1921). From Canada, a mission was established in Joliet, Illinois, USA, in 1880.
The Loretto Sisters in North America were established as an independent branch of the Institute in 1881, but were reunited with the founding branch in 2003. Loreto sisters are now found in these countries as well as in new missions in Tanzania, Nepal, Morocco, Ecuador, East Timor, Bangladesh, Seychelles, Zambia, Ghana, Albania and southern Sudan. New missions are being planned elsewhere.
Loretto Sisters in Canada
In 1847, at the request of Michael Power, Bishop of Toronto, Teresa Ball sent five young sisters from Ireland to Canada to serve the needs of the immigrant Irish population. They arrived in the midst of a raging typhus plague; within two weeks the Bishop, who had been helping to nurse the ill in the ‘fever sheds’ was dead, and for some time the community struggled under severe conditions of poverty and deprivation, extreme temperatures, and loss through sickness and death of some of its original members. A new bishop was appointed three years after the death of Bishop Power, and soon the youngest of the group, Ellen Teresa Dease, was named the Superior of the tiny mission; new sisters were sent from Ireland to join her. As well, young women from the Catholic community in Toronto began to enter the congregation, promising new hope in these fragile beginnings. The sisters taught in two different kinds of schools: the ‘free’ school for non-paying pupils (thus setting the stage for the development of separate, publicly-supported schools in the province of Ontario), and the convent school for young ladies from families who could afford to pay tuition.
Their reputation for good education led to invitations to Teresa Dease from priests in other towns of Ontario to establish communities in other locations. By 1880, in addition to the Toronto foundation, there were communities and schools in: Brantford (1853-1859); London (1855-1856); Guelph (1856 to the present); Belleville (1857-1865, 1876-1889); Niagara Falls (1861 to the present); Hamilton (1865-1981); Lindsay (1874-1890); Stratford (1878-1973). All of these foundations were educational; where the community remains today the tasks of the present Loretto sisters have expanded, and in the recent past have included other kinds of ministry, including outreach to the poor, ministry to prisoners, retreat work and spiritual direction, work with refugees, parish ministry, education by correspondence, collaboration with local bishops in the work of religious education, and a variety of other works as needs have arisen. All of this is in keeping with Mary Ward’s expressed intention of 1616, that the members of the Institute devote themselves to promote the good of their neighbour by the education of girls or by any other means that are congruous to the times, or in which it is judged that we can by our labours promote the greater glory of God…
Foundation in the United States
In 1880, an invitation was extended to Teresa Dease to open a community of the Institute in Joliet, Illinois, and to begin a school there. In the course of time Loretto provided staff for four parish schools in Joliet: St Mary’s, St Patrick’s, St. Bernard’s and Sacred Heart. After Mother Theresa’s death in 1989 the IBVM American Region continued to expand with the founding of new Academies in Chicago, Sault St Marie and California. Today Loretto Sisters in the United States are serving in a variety of ministries beyond the classroom, working in various pastoral ministries and among the disadvantaged and marginalized. The Institute in the United States is now present in Arizona, California, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Separation from Ireland
At about the same time, serious consideration was given to establishing the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary in North America as a branch independent of Ireland, and, for reasons that are not totally clear, this was accomplished. Certainly communication with Ireland was difficult and took time; as well, pioneer conditions and a difference in culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries demanded adaptation from the way the sisters lived in Ireland: in the new towns where they ministered, sisters were required to teach boys, to travel alone and to adapt to very different circumstances than they had experienced in the days since the community was founded in Dublin. Whatever the reasons, the Loretto Sisters in North America were granted independent status in 1881, with the motherhouse at Loretto Abbey in Toronto.
Expansion in Canada: 1881 – 1958
Teresa Dease, Superior General from 1881, died in 1889 and is buried at Niagara Falls, a spot she loved. The invitations to serve the needs of towns and cities outside of Ontario came from the Canadian west, from Saskatchewan, first of all, with an invitation to begin a foundation in 1921 in Sedley, a small prairie town which, with its neighbouring farming communities, contributed many new members to the Loretto community in Canada. The Institute spread to Saskatoon, Regina, Weyburn and Estevan, and in 1958 continued to move west to British Columbia, with the establishment of a small community in Vancouver.
Today, IBVM sisters minister in Saskatoon, Regina, Weyburn & Estevan. In Ontario the community is located in Toronto, Guelph and Niagara Falls; the ministry of the community is still to serve the needs of the times, wherever and however these are perceived.
Since becoming a separate Generalate in 1881, connections between North America and the founding community (often called the “Irish Branch”) in Dublin had remained close, with correspondence and visits well-documented in the archives of both groups.
Conversation about “union” took place in various forms, both formal and informal and eventually, in September 2003, in a three-day celebration, Loret(t)o sisters from around the world gathered in Toronto to celebrate and ritualize the Reunion of the two branches, Irish and North American into one Loreto Branch. Canada and the United States became two provinces of the larger branch, which now includes the provinces of Australia, Canada, Eastern Africa, England, India, Ireland, South Africa, Spain, the United States, and the Region of Peru. The Generalate of this Branch of Mary Ward’s Institute is in Rome.