‘Jesuitresses’, or ‘Jesuicesses’? Patriarchal Society against the Effectiveness of the English Ladies.

‘Jesuitresses’, or ‘Jesuicesses’?
Patriarchal Society against the Effectiveness of the English Ladies.

  • The word ‘Jesuicesses’ is a play on words we invented, mixing ‘Jesuit’ and ‘Success(es)’

MA students Illona Cadenel and Léa Motisi, from our Cultural Studies Masters Degree at Aix-Marseille University, wrote this blog post on Mary Ward’s work and vocation.

The reign of Queen Elizabeth I is synonymous with the religious opposition between Protestantism and Catholicism within England, where the Catholic persecution was all the more emphasised by laws such as the Act of Supremacy, or the Act of Uniformity, and ensured by the Protestant authorities. But even if Catholicism was prohibited in England, it did not prevent the most fervent believers from launching the English Mission in 1580, whose main purpose was to bring back the Catholic faith to England, even if it meant to proceed dangerously undercover. Soon enough, Catholic women decided to join the English Mission, or at least to help and promote it as much as they could.

Mary Ward (1585-1645)


Hence, Mary Ward, after a series of divine visions, founded her Institute in 1611, where the English Ladies would gather and act as the female counterpart of the Jesuits. But, in the 16th century, the fact that any woman should have such independence, raised opposition and tensions, despite the effectiveness of the English Ladies.

The English Mission, or ‘Mission Impossible’ in Protestant England.

When the Protestant government grew aware of the return of the missionaries in England from 1574, the Penal Laws were passed to take measures against the English Mission. These laws intended to make Catholicism illegal, and it gave means to the Elizabethan system to punish any priest who would try to convert English people.   

Because the Protestant authorities led raids to unveil any Catholic activity, the missionaries lived in precarious conditions, and they had to hide when practising the Catholic faith in the homes of the followers. Since the beginning of the English Mission, the Catholic women were also involved in recusancy, as they would provide coverture to their resident priests, whilst remaining in the shadows.

The English Ladies lived in community

Yet, when the English Ladies began acting as the female counterparts of the Jesuits, it seemed that they knew how to use the gendered-stereotypes of patriarchal society to their advantage, and to spread Catholicism at least as successfully as the Jesuits. Indeed, when Mary Ward had her divine visions leading to the foundation of the Institute, she received the message to ‘take the Same of the Society’[1], which meant to base it on the model of the Society of Jesus, just as Ignatius Loyola had theorised. The idea was that the English Ladies would play the same role as the Jesuits in the English Mission, but for women and girls. Because this endeavour was so unusual, the Protestant authorities did not manage to identify them as Catholic activists as easily as they did their male counterparts.

The example of Sister Dorothea shows how the English Ladies could use their anonymity to reach the population that was usually overlooked by the Jesuits. Hence, Sister Dorothea decided to focus her attention on the poor population, which the Jesuits overlooked, since they tended to hide in ‘manor-houses’[2], and moreover, she could take the time to convince them to convert to Catholicism[3], unlike the Jesuits who sometimes had ‘only a few days’[4] in each household.

  The truth is, the Protestant authorities usually did not know what they were looking for when they tried to apprehend the English Ladies, which granted those female missionaries a wider freedom of movement.

The Institute against the Rest of Mankind.

While England was divided between Protestantism and Catholicism, Catholicism itself was going through some tensions within, in the post-Tridentine context, the independence that the Institute granted to the English Ladies, which seemed unnatural to a patriarchal institution such as the Roman Church.

While the English Ladies could be seen as ‘a formidable asset’[5] to the English Mission, the Jesuits aimed at showing the limits of the Institute. Indeed, everything that could have made of the Institute another means for the Catholic cause ended up being used against the English Ladies, instead of focusing on their effectiveness.

For example, the Institute aimed at providing an education for young girls[6], more with a view to showing ‘the fullness of God’s world’[7] than to emancipation.

Mary Ward educating young girls

 Yet, the English Ladies’ detractors men would always emphasise the danger of unsupervised women, considered to ‘be prideful’[8] for claiming to be their equals, and putting aside their initiatives. The situation escalated so much that there came to be a true division, and the Institute became a hot topic for contention. First, the Society of Jesus decided that there would be no communication with the Institute[9], because Ignatius Loyola himself had never promoted a female branch in the initial Society of Jesus[10]. Then, the secular clergy decided to detach too from the Institute, because of its refusal to be under the authority of any male member of the Church[11].

But, it is relevant to remember that Mary Ward founded the Institute after receiving several divine visions, and she was convinced that ‘women were as capable as men’[12], and that they were able to give ‘spiritual leadership’ too[13], because of ‘their equality before God’[14]. he effectiveness of the English Ladies is evidenced in several accounts, such as by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who stated that ‘[Mary Ward] did more harm than six Jesuits’[15], showing that the English Mission could benefit from the Institute.

The Bull of Suppression (1631)

Even if some opposition was to be expected, the coup de grâce came from the highest Catholic authority, when Pope Urban VIII decided to pass the Bull of Suppression, in 1631 putting an end to the Institute. For twenty years, the Institute managed to participate in the English Mission, more or less welcomed by the missionaries themselves. But, eventually, ‘the mixed-life’ that Mary Ward promoted in the Institute clashed with Rome. The notion of enclosure at the core of the Catholic ethos of the time, added to the criticism of the Jesuits, were too much for the Institute to fight against.

Mary Ward’s Institute: About 400 Years ahead of its Time.

Father Roger Lee

It could be argued that Mary Ward’s radicalism in her Plan to establish her vocation brought the suppression of the Institute forward. Indeed, Mary Ward’s Institute has been through three revisions before finally finding its pace, one ‘radical’[16] in the eyes of Rome. The Institute’s first version was based on the Schola Beatae Mariae of 1612, mainly influenced by Father Roger Lee[17] who was aware of the need to conform to enclosure. But, yet, it was not close enough to Mary Ward’s vocation, who then drafted the second Plan in the Ratio Instituti of 1616, which introduced ‘the mixed-life’[18], already breaking from the traditional cloister, and it eventually reached its final version, with the third Plan in the Institutum of 1622.

But, the third Plan was actually a step too far, as it stood for the English Ladies to fully be missionaries, which was in total opposition with the clerical-imposed norms[19]. Indeed, the fact that the English Ladies would be free to go around the world, ‘with the same educational opportunities as men’[20], made them seen ‘as rebels’[21], and the fact that they had ‘a self-government’[22] granted them ‘unprecedented levels of autonomy’[23]. Mary Ward, and the English Ladies were now compared to actresses, playing in theatrical performances, ‘to lure the poor women into debauchery’[24], once again emphasising the heretical level of having women in the English Mission, and undermining the effectiveness of the Institute.

Frances Bedingfield

In opposition, some other Catholic women, because more compliant to fit in the patriarchal society, managed to remain active in the English Mission, as they acknowledged their inferiority as women, such as Teresa of Avila[25]. For example, Frances Bedingfield, a follower of Mary Ward, founded the Second Institute, whose 81 Rules were approved by Pope Clement XI, in 1703[26]. The Second Institute was actually closer to Father Roger Lee’s First Plan, than from Mary Ward’s Institute, with an emphasis on contemplation, and on prayer[27], rather than on education.

Because Frances Bedingfield embraced the male definitions of female religious roles, the Second Institute could remain, and it eventually became the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in 1749[28]. In 2003, the Second Institute was finally considered as being based on the Society of Jesus, as Mary Ward had meant it about 400 years before.

[1] Lux-Sterritt, Laurence. ‘Mary Ward’s English Institute and Prescribed Female Roles in the Early Modern Church’. In Gender, Catholicism and Spirituality, edited by Laurence Lux-Sterritt and Carmen M. Mangion, 164–184. London: Macmillan Education UK, 2011, 175. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-137-26794-8_6

[2] McClain, Lisa. ‘On a Mission: Priests, Jesuits, “Jesuitresses,” and Catholic Missionary Efforts in Tudor-Stuart England.’ The Catholic Historical Review 101, no. 3 (2015): 437–462, 449. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45175504

[3] Caroline Bicks. ‘Staging the Jesuitess in A Game at Chess’. SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 49, no. 2 (2009): 463–484, 474. https://doi.org/10.1353/sel.0.0054

[4] McClain, Lisa. ‘On a Mission’, 451.

[5] Lux-Sterritt, Laurence. ‘Mary Ward’s English Institute’, 176.

[6] Lux-Sterritt, Laurence. ‘An Analysis of the Controversy Caused by Mary Ward’s Institute in the 1620s’. Recusant History 25, no. 4 (October 2001): 636–647, 638. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0034193200030521

[7] Chittister, Joan Women Priests. ‘Mary Ward’. https://womenpriests.org/articles-books/chitt04-mary-ward/

[8] McClain, Lisa. ‘On a Mission’, 446.

[9] Ibid., 460.

[10] Ibid., 442.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Lux-Sterritt, Laurence. ‘Mary Ward’s English Institute’, 182.

[13] Chittister, Joan Women Priests.

[14] Moss, Christina. “‘Women May Be Perfect as Well as Men’: Self-Identity and Patriarchal Oppression in the Writings of Mary Ward and Her Followers.” Critical Survey 11, no. 1 (1999): 98–110, 98. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41556880.

[15] McClain, Lisa. ‘On a Mission’, 443.

[16] Moss, Christina. “‘Women May Be Perfect as Well as Men’, 102.

[17] Lux-Sterritt, Laurence. ‘Mary Ward’s English Institute’, 167.

[18] Lux-Sterritt, Laurence. ‘An Analysis of the Controversy’, 637.

[19] Lux-Sterritt, Laurence. ‘Mary Ward’s English Institute’, 183.

[20] Lavinia Byrne, ‘Mary Ward’s Vision of the Apostolic Religious Life’, n.d.: 73-84, 75.

[21] Lux-Sterritt, Laurence. ‘Mary Ward’s English Institute’, 170.

[22] Lux-Sterritt, Laurence. ‘An Analysis of the Controversy’, 638.

[23] Lux-Sterritt, Laurence. ‘Mary Ward’s English Institute’, 175.

[24] Caroline Bicks. ‘Staging the Jesuitess in A Game at Chess’. SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 49, no. 2 (2009): 463–484, 466. https://doi.org/10.1353/sel.0.0054

[25] Lux-Sterritt, Laurence. ‘Mary Ward’s English Institute’, 182.

[26] Ibid., 183.

[27] Ibid., 171.

[28] McClain, Lisa. ‘On a Mission’, 461.

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