A Marian mix-up and Mother Teresa

IN THE MID 1970s, I attended a series of evening lectures given by the art historian Ernst Gombrich. They were held in the Mary Ward Centre in London’s Bloomsbury.

Sign post at Loreto House School

In January 2023, we visited Sister Marilla, who works for Loreto House School and College in Middleton Row in the heart of Kolkata. My wife attended the school for several years in the 1960s. The two educational establishments are part of a larger organisation, the Loreto branch of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (‘IBVM’). When Sister Marilla told us that the IBVM was founded by Mary Ward (1585-1645), I immediately thought of the Mary Ward Centre in London, and was a bit surprised because I had always assumed that the Centre was named after a 19th century woman.

My assumption was correct. The Centre is named after the novelist Mary Augusta Ward (1851 – 1920), not the Mary Ward, founder of the IBVM.

The earlier Mary Ward (b 1585) was born in Yorkshire – Roman Catholic during the time that Roman Catholicism was outlawed in England. She felt the need to take up holy orders and instead of becoming yet another Catholic martyr, she wanted to do something worthwhile and practical. She went to Flanders where she joined the Poor Clares in St Omer.

To cut a long story short, she became, to oversimplify a lot, a female version of a Jesuit, but not a member of the Jesuit Order. After leaving St Omer, she founded the Poor Clare House for English women at Gravelines. There, and later elsewhere, she taught women about the Roman Catholic faith. In about 1609, she returned to England, where she gathered women to teach girls about the banned faith. Mary Ward suffered many hardships, including imprisonment in Germany, before succumbing to ill health in England

Leaping ahead in time, this group founded by Mary Ward, which had to surmount much criticism from the Jesuits and members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, was the seed that germinated to become the officially recognised IBVM in 1877.

Followers of the group she had founded in 1609, established the Bar Convent in York in 1686. It was from here in 1821 that the IBVM Loreto branch was founded in Dublin by Teresa Frances Ball.

On the 12th of October 1928, 18 year old Albanian Agnes Gonxha from Skopje (now in North Macedonia) joined the IBVM at their Loreto Abbey at Rathfarnham in Ireland. She left Ireland on the 1st of December 1928, and landed at Kolkata on the 6th of January 1929. From there she travelled to Darjeeling, where on the 24th of May 1931, as a novice, she made her First Profession in Darjeeling’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. In this church she made her Final Profession on the 24th of May 1937.

Next, Agnes was sent to the Loreto Convent at Entally in Kolkata. At first, she taught catechism and geography at Loreto St Mary’s Bengali School, which was on the campus of the convent. Eventually, she became the school’s headmistress.

On the 10th of September 1946, whilst travelling to a retreat in Darjeeling, she decided that her true calling was to work with the poor in the slums of Kolkata. By that time, she was known not as Agnes Gonxha but as the now much more familiar Mother Teresa. The order she founded, The Missionaries of Charity, maintained a warm relationship between it and the IBVM. Internationally famous, she died in 1997.

Had it not been for our visit to Sister Marilla and the informative booklets she gave us, it might have been a long time before I discovered the two Mary Wards and the connection that one of them had with both my wife’s school and Mother Teresa.