Mary Ward was concerned about equal educational opportunities for women, as there were few educational openings for them in the 17th century. She sought to offer education across all strata of society, opening schools for the poor in places like Naples. She was convinced that women, on the basis of a thorough education, could make an important contribution to the Church and society. The legacy of this educational aspect of her work is summed up by the latest mission of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM) based just outside the city of Rumbek, South Sudan. There, two Irish Sisters are teaching in the region's first secondary school for girls, challenging women's educational disadvantage, cultural norms such as early and forced marriages and the dowry system.
“Most of our people don't have families or extended families. They are people on the street or out of prison or mentally ill. Somehow the family connection gets disjointed. Where are they going to go?”
It was while Sr Christine Leyser, IBVM, was working in the Canadian prison system that she decided that Guelph, near Toronto needed a place free of drugs and alcohol – and offering friendship, support and low-cost nutritional food. The drop-in centre in Guelph was established in 1983, from which other projects sprang subsequently. These include the Dwelling Place – a supportive housing project (1984) and the Stepping Stone emergency shelter, the Nottingham Street workshop where furniture and televisions are repaired and a foot clinic and hair days are held, as well as the 24-unit housing complex on York Road for those suffering from mental illness and schizophrenia. According to Volunteer, Don Kerr: “I never knew this side of the tracks. It was quite an eye opener, especially the lack of help with the mentally ill who fall through the cracks.”
On 15 May 2009, Sr Christine was presented with the Order of Canada – the country's highest honour – in recognition of her work and contribution towards building a better society for those on the margins.
Mary Ward's story begins in and ends in Yorkshire. The documentary will visit some of the places associated with her, such as her burial place in Osbaldwick and the Bar Convent York, which is still in the care of the CJ branch of Mary Ward's Institute and is the oldest active convent in England. It was founded in 1686 by Frances Bedingfield, one of Mary Ward's early companions. The city of York with its wonderful walls and ancient cathedral will form a backdrop.
1686 was a time of severe persecution for Catholics, and the Bar Convent endured its fair share. The Sisters concealed their identity, but Frances Bedingfield suffered imprisonment and the Convent narrowly escaped destruction by an angry mob. Education was provided for Catholic girls of all classes, rich and poor, and a beautiful hidden chapel was built in 1769. Mary Ward's Sisters ran the school for 299 years, until it was handed on to the Diocese in 1985 as part of All Saints School. The historic core buildings are now devoted to various forms of heritage work, worldwide hospitality, and a pastoral centre. It was from the Bar Convent that the IBVM branch of Mary Ward’s Institute was founded in Dublin in 1821.
The documentary Mary Ward: Dangerous Visionary has just been completed by TV production company New Decade. It focuses on two projects where Mary Ward's Sisters are working today, 400 years after she founded her first Institute in 1609. The first of these was filmed at Loreto Rumbek, a pioneering secondary school for girls in South Sudan. The second filmed Sr Christine Leyser’s work with the homeless and mentally ill in Guelph, Canada. The filming gallery shows Ciaran O’Connor, director of Mary Ward: Dangerous Visionary, as he records footage in Sudan, Canada and films re-enactments of moments from Mary Ward’s life. The actress Sinead Murphy plays the Yorkshire foundress of the IBVMs and CJs. Designer Ciaran Doyle provided the costumes for these.
“It is ingratitude if one thinks that everything is chance just because one is not aware that everything can come from the hand of God”
Mary Ward LR 234/5