Dear Parents and Friends of Loreto Normanhurst
From March 29 to April 12 I was privileged to take part in a pilgrimage to Mary Ward’s Europe along with other colleagues from Ministries in the province of Loreto Australia and South East Asia. Since returning, I have been asked by many about my experience and to share stories of the highlights. I have tried to do so, but must say that it has not been easy to put in to words what the experience was like, and I just can’t narrow the highlight to one. There are many stories to retell, many layers to unfold.
Before leaving I had hoped that the pilgrimage would be an opportunity for me to come to know more about the life, character and experiences of our extraordinary founder Mary Ward and in doing so to gain a deeper appreciation and awareness of her, her times and our shared Ignatian spirituality. This is precisely what happened, and in fact the learnings continue to reveal themselves to me each day.
A pilgrimage is more than a trip or a tour. It is an opportunity to ponder the ways of God in the lives of those who have gone before us, while also reflecting on the journey we are on now and are called to take in carrying the Loreto mission into the future. Our path took us to trace Mary Ward’s footsteps in places of significance in her life: York and the Yorkshire countryside, London, St Omer, Liège, Augsburg and Munich. I had visited some of these places in previous travel, but it was very different to have now experienced them through a completely different lens; for all these places became for us sacred places – places where the journey and the storytelling allowed for deep pondering about the ways of God in all things and people. This was enabled and strengthened by the beautiful liturgies prepared by Sr Sandra Perrett IBVM.
We made our way independently to York, Mary’s hometown, and met fellow pilgrims at the Bar Convent, home to the members of the English Province of the Congregation of Jesus and our accommodation for the stay in York. The Bar Convent is England’s oldest continually open convent established by Frances Bedingfield in 1686 to be a school for girls, a place of learning and fun. The Bar Convent takes on particular significance for us in Australia as it is where Teresa Ball did her training before returning to Ireland which ultimately led to Mother Gonzaga Barry establishing Loreto in Australia. As I sat in the Chapel of the Bar Convent I sensed the enormity of the influence of Mary Ward’s vision, of how her story had ignited the hearts of others over the years.
The time spent in York, where layers of history have influenced generations of people and moulded its present, gave us deep insight into the context of Mary’s early years and ultimately provided the prism through which to experience the whole pilgrimage. She was born at a time of harsh anti-Catholic laws, of great conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Yet, she was also born into a loving and faith-filled family, hearing stories of women and men who had gone before her who had been persecuted for their beliefs. All of this greatly impacted Mary’s formation, her commitment to her faith and the conviction she maintained of the place of women in the family and in our world. It was women who fostered the faith in their households, organised secret Masses, hid and took a care of priests. All at great personal risk.
We know of the distances travelled by Mary over the years, the crossing of national European boarders and the crossing of the Alps from Munich to Rome, but I hadn’t appreciated the constant movement that was part of her childhood until those days spent in York. She was on the move her whole life and travelled vast distances, even when ill. Being on the move and living with the need to hide, or keep others hidden, helps us understand the importance Mary Ward placed on freedom and freedom of spirit. This became clearer to me as the journey went on. And through all of this she completely surrendered herself to the will of God, for it is from His will that freedom is reached.
One day, when visiting the places Mary knew intimately as a child in the Yorkshire countryside– Mulwith and Newby, Ripon and Ripley Castle – and while contemplating the significance of being on the land she tread and breathing the country air she would have breathed, fellow pilgrim Sr Trish Franklin IBVM told us that the literal translation of the phrase ‘where are you from’ in Vietnamese is where is the soil of your soul. This resonated with me and still does today when I contemplate the soil of my soul and those who have influenced my life. We were placing steps on the soil of Mary’s soul, a very blessed place to be.
Our final day in York was spent in the reflective spaces of Mount Grace Priory, where Mary’s companions prayed for her when she was ill and where she too made pilgrimage when well enough, and at Osbaldwick, where we meditated and gathered before Mary’s tombstone. These are two sacred places of sanctuary and peace, places where I felt the mark of God’s hand in bringing the paths of all of us individual pilgrims together and bringing us closer to Him via the path left us by Mary Ward.
The sounds, smells and sites of London provided stark contrast to the backdrop of York. I’m sure it would have done so also in Mary’s days. In London it was necessary to use a little imagination as some of the places of significance now have a completely different purpose or look. This occurred at the monument outside Westminster Abbey, under which the Gatehouse prison where Mary was held would have been. It happened again outside the Church of St Clements Danes, site of the Glory Vision in 1609, when Mary knew that she was not to join the Carmelites as had been suggested to her. I was pinching myself at this point. London was another place of movement, an in-between time for Mary before going back to St Omer, another place of disguise and hiding as she worked with the poor at Bankside (dressed as a maid), hiding priests and visiting others in prison.; an “underground ministry” as it were.
We left the port of Dover to cross the English Channel by ferry, heading to the small town of St Omer in Northern France. We went from the port of Calais to the train station to get the train to St Omer. Not far from that station of Calais is the site of what has been recently labelled as the ‘Calais Jungle’. I could sense the desperation and deep sadness at the station of Calais. Young men, belongings in plastic bag in hand, waiting. Waiting for what I can imagine is a pass to freedom, hope for a new beginning. There was not much hope in the atmosphere, though. I sensed a heaviness, tension and sadness in modern day France and Belgium. It seems that persecution, conflict, loneliness and despair has stood the test of centuries.
Our crossing of the channel on a modern day ferry took place on a glorious, sunny day with calm waters and refreshing breeze. How different it would have been for Mary Ward – the first crossing she took was with one letter of recommendation, accompanied by Catherine Bentley and using a pseudonym. Here she was, following God’s will with nothing but complete surrender to that will as her guide. A refugee, if you will, in a foreign land. In her time in St Omer Mary came to understand the call to be apostolic.
St Omer is a small town, yet one of immense significance for Mary Ward and central to the Mary Ward story. A place of loneliness, of conflict and insult, a place where she suffered derision and contempt that was directed at her and other lay-sisters from the townsfolk. St Omer was also a place in which Mary had the insights which gave her what she needed to proceed in light of setback. When Mary returned to St Omer in 1609 with some of her companions they set up house in Rue Grosse (now Rue Carnot). This is where she had profound insights – that to ‘take the same’ (as the Society of Jesus) in 1611, the just soul vision in 1615 (from which we draw our key values of freedom, justice sincerity). St Omer is also the place where she delivered what we now know as the ‘Verity Speeches’ in response to a report on the institute from cardinals in Rom which suggested that ‘their fervour will decay’ and that ‘they are but women.’ The imprint of Ignatian influences is evident in the insights Mary gained – it is through her deep listening to God that she lives out her discernment and decision making. So while a place of loneliness, St Omer also provided her with immense consolation. You can probably appreciate just from this small snippet, that St Omer was very sacred space to be treading and definitely where I knew I was entering deeper into the mystery and gift of this remarkable woman.
Mary made the journey from St Omer to Liege many times and we undertook the same. In Liege the Institute expanded, although it was to become for Mary Ward and her companions the setting of internal conflict, financial difficulty and personal pain. It is in Liege where Mary wrote and recorded her insights and visions to ‘take the same’ and the Just Soul. In the times of despair and pain, Mary again turned to prayer so as to discern God’s will. While knowing that they were to ‘take the same’, she prayed at the crucifix in the Church of St Martin and had the insight that she was to do so her way. While the crucifix we prayed before may not have been the very same one that Mary Ward stood before, the Basilica of St Martin was a place of awe for us, as we pondered in the knowledge that it is a holy place for it is where Mary was with her God.
Our final stop was Germany, where we spent time in Munich and nearby Augsburg. As you would expect, the sites in Munich also bore the marks of our modern History with many places having been ruined or destroyed during World War II. It did not, however, distract from experiencing the sacredness of this place. At first, Munich provided fruitful times for Mary, but it soon became a place of struggle and suppression, of neglect and poverty for her. We entered Munich through the Isator Gate, as Mary would have done. In Munich we spent time at the site of Paradeiser House, Angel’s Pharmacy and the Anger Convent where Mary was imprisoned. She became a prisoner of her former community, unable to receive Holy Communion because by then she had been thrown out of the Church. She did listen and follow the Eucharist, however, always a source of strength for Mary. The site of the Anger Convent was destroyed in WWII and on this site now a beautiful church has been rebuilt.
Sisters have been in Augsburg since 1662 and that convent has never closed. It was Mary Poyntz who firstly went there and it’s not known why she chose Augsburg. It was she who took the original portrait of Mary Ward to Augsburg and to stand before it, with Mary’s watchful eyes following me from each point of the room, was a special moment indeed. The Maria Ward Gymnasium, the high school attached to the convent, is also the site where the original Painted Life are kept. Being before them on the last day of the pilgrimage allowed me to revisit and contemplate the scenes which had come to life throughout the days of this journey. The painted life was described to us as ‘pictures of the inner way of Mary Ward.’ I like this turn of phrase very much. While we can consider Mary Ward to have been extraordinary, and I have done so in this very reflection, she was in so many other ways an ordinary woman. An ordinary woman who followed her path in life with trust in God and with God’s providence as her compass.
Mary’s constant yearning to know God more and more intimately was a gift that she had. It is the gift that nourished and sustained her through the times of desolation and confusion. She referred to God as “parent of parents and friend of friends” – for Mary, He is a relational God who we come to know through relationship.
This pilgrimage was for me a spiritual journey to the heart of the Mary Ward Story. This story of Mary in her times, that of her companions, that of the women over centuries who have followed in her way, and that of all of us who continue to be inspired by her as we carry forward the Loreto mission continues to unravel itself to me now that I am home. What has happened for me is that all which I knew of Mary Ward, and that which I have only recently discovered, has taken on a renewed, enlivened dimension – one that is founded in the lived and shared experience of being in the sacredness of the space, of listening to the stories, and by treading those steps in companionship with others. I know that this pilgrimage experience has changed my story. I know that it has brought grace into my life that will nourish and strengthen me.
I felt the closeness and warmth of our community while I was on pilgrimage. I consider myself blessed to have been given this opportunity and am thankful to Sr Margaret Mary Flynn IBVM and the Province of Loreto Australia and South East Asia for promoting this experience and to Ms Watkins for her support in allowing this to happen for me. I would also like to thank Ms Kieryn Bateman for her service and leadership as Acting Deputy Principal during my absence. Below is a beautiful reflection which became our Pilgrim’s Prayer and I offer it to you this week, for aren’t we but all pilgrims on our way?
We entrust our way
We entrust our way and what fills our hearts to the
most faithful care of God who governs heaven.
God who gives to the clouds, air and winds their way,
their course and path will also find a way where our feet can go.
In all matters God has a way, God never lacks the means
God’s action is pure blessing;
God’s way is pure light;
no one can hinder what God does.
God’s activity never has to rest, when God wants to
do what is beneficial for pilgrims on their way.
– Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) adadpted