Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

On a Mission: Priests, Jesuits, "Jesuitresses," and Catholic Missionary Efforts in Tudor-Stuart England

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

On a Mission: Priests, Jesuits, "Jesuitresses," and Catholic Missionary Efforts in Tudor-Stuart England

Article excerpt

Beginning in 1609, English Catholic women in Mary Ward's Institute of English Ladies returned to England to advance the mission of reclaiming England for Rome. The English Ladies typically avoided detection by Protestant authorities as they struggled to meet the religious needs of neglected populations. As women, they often could go where men could not, and their labors allowed those already involved in the mission to reach more Catholics and potential converts. This essay seeks to provide a more nuanced understanding of the English Mission's delivery of pastoral care as well as the role of Ward and the English Ladies.

Keywords: English Mission; Institute of English Ladies; pastoral care; Ward, Mary


The story of the English Mission is fairly well known, or so we used to think. Beginning in 1574, first secular and then Jesuit priests began arriving in Protestant England illegally to strengthen the Catholic faith and save souls.* 1 Working out of the homes of the Catholic gentry, priests such as Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell reconciled English subjects to Rome and provided sacraments as best they could to a dwindling population of Catholics. It was dangerous work, and many such missionaries were imprisoned, tortured, and even executed for treason. The country never did return its allegiance to Rome, and many scholars have laid partial blame for this failure on the Mission's overemphasis on wealthy Catholics who lived near London.2 In the past decade, scholars have revisited the Mission, examining its priests, networks, priorities, coordination, and geographic scope and attempting to craft a clearer picture of how the Mission functioned.3 What has rarely been incorporated into this picture is how, between 1609 and 1631, English women trained on the continent returned to England on the Mission so that they, too, might work toward the salvation of their neighbors' souls. These women were the English Ladies-members of Mary Ward's Institute, an organization modeled after the Society of Jesus. They participated in the vibrant current of experimentation in women's spirituality and modifications to compulsory women's enclosure in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. Although Pope Urban VIII suppressed the Institute in 1631, English Catholic women revived a form of it after Ward's death, and this organization spread across continents by the nineteenth century.4 5 Ward's Institute exists worldwide today as the Congregation of Jesus and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM). It is commonly known as the Sisters of Loreto, which counted among its members Mother Teresa of Calcutta.3

When historians write of Ward and the Institute, they predominantly focus on an analysis of early-modern women's piety and debates over women's enclosure, neglecting the English Ladies' contribution to Catholic efforts to reclaim England for Rome. The experiences of Ward and the English Ladies can shed new light on the Mission itself-how it worked and whom it served.6 Benefitting from gendered attitudes and stereotypes, Ward's English Ladies were less likely than priests to be suspected, identified, and arrested for their work on the English Mission.7 This allowed them to work relatively undetected and to reach populations typically described as underserved by male missionaries, such as the poor. Moreover, they increased the effectiveness of priests and laypeople already working on the Mission. This analysis challenges our understanding of the Mission's interest in and ability to provide pastoral care for Catholics- indeed, our very understanding of how the Mission could and did work, at least for these twenty years. Ironically, this very success contributed to the eventual suppression of Ward's Institute by stirring up so much fear, rumor, and controversy that it overshadowed the benefits of the English Ladies' work on the English Mission.

Mary Ward and Her Institute

Ward (1585-1645, see figure 1) spent her childhood in several recusant households in Protestant England. …

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