The Sisters known as the Loreto Sisters belong to the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM) founded in 1609 by a twenty-four-year-old Yorkshire woman, Mary Ward.Because of religious persecution in England, Catholics from that country had to seek education in Continental Europe. Mary Ward and her first companions established their first school at St Omer (now in France) in a house, which is still there, although it is now a private residence. In St Omer, Mary Ward and her group became known as the ‘English Ladies’ – a title still used for members of the CJ sisters (formerly IBVM) in Germany and in other countries in Europe. Despite enormous difficulties, Mary Ward set up houses and schools in Bavaria, Austria and Italy in a relatively short time. She moved between the countries mainly on foot. A pair of her rough shoes, and her pilgrim’s hat can still be seen in one of the CJ convents in Altötting in Germany. Many of Mary Ward’s ideas about religious life and about the work to be done by women were so novel in the early 17th century that in 1631 her Institute was suppressed. Mary Ward died in Yorkshire in 1645. In 1650 her sisters had to flee the country again and seek safety in Paris. Eventually in 1677 the Sisters were able to return to York and open a school in the city.
Now, in 2015, the Congregation which has its roots in this original English Foundation is known as Congregation of Jesus in keeping with the orginal desire of Mary Ward to have the name of Jesus in the title of the Congregation. The CJ’s have foundations all over the world and are in close communion with the Irish branch of the Congregation originally founded by Mary Ward.
The lack of formal schools in Ireland acceptable to Catholics in the 17th and for most of the 18th centuries led many Catholic families, who could afford to do so, to send their children abroad to be educated. A silk merchant in Dublin, John Ball and his wife had been happy to send their eldest daughter to the new Ursuline school in Cork. However, the Rebellion of 1798 and its aftermath made travel between Dublin and Cork very dangerous. The Ball family decided that their younger daughters Anna Maria, Isabella and Frances, and their son Nicholas, should go to school in England. The girls were sent to the IBVM convent in York. Frances Ball finished her education in York in 1808 and returned to Dublin. She confided to Fr Daniel Murray, a family friend, that she wanted to become a Religious as soon as she could get her parents’ consent.
In 1809, Fr Murray was ordained Coadjutor Bishop of Dublin. He was to become one of the greatest Archbishops the Dublin Diocese has ever had, and was instrumental in the foundation of the Irish Sisters of Charity and of the Sisters of Mercy, the re-organisation of Maynooth College, the foundation of All Hallows College, the introduction to Ireland of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, the building of many Churches including the Pro-Cathedral and Westland Row. Archbishop Murray realised that if the Catholic Church was to be revived after the persecution and suppression of the penal days, it was essential to provide Catholic education for the people. He invited the CJ Sisters at York to establish a school in Dublin but they were not in a position to send sisters at that time. It was arranged that Frances Ball would enter the IBVM in York and that she would return to Dublin in due course to set up the first IBVM house in Ireland. Frances Ball now became known as Mother Teresa Ball.In 1821, when Mother Teresa was ready to return to Dublin, Dr Murray bought Rathfarnham House with forty acres of land. The house had been built in 1725 and had been owned by the Palliser and Grierson families. This first community established by Teresa Ball was named Loreto convent. Mary Ward had been particularly devoted to visiting the church of Our Lady of Loreto in Rome. This inspired Teresa ball to name the first IBVM community, ‘Loreto’. This became the popular name for the Congregation with its roots in Ireland.
Before the house could be used by the IBVM sisters, a number of structural repairs had to be carried out. Mother Teresa and two companions eventually moved to Rathfarnham House on November 4, 1822. The name ‘Loreto’ had been used by all houses founded from Rathfarnham over the years since that November evening. Eventually, the Sisters become known as ‘Loreto Sisters’, although their official title remains the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
A school for girls was established in the newly named ‘Loreto House’ at Rathfarnham. Although the Relief Acts of 1782 and 1792 allowed schools for Catholics in Ireland, those conducting the schools still had to get a licence to do so from the local Church of Ireland Minister or Bishop. The licence obtained by Mother Teresa Ball from Henry McClean and Thomas Jones on 16 June 1823, as well as copies of the required Oath of Allegiance to the King taken by Mother Teresa on 6 May 1822, are preserved in the Loreto Archives. The National School system as we know it to day was introduced by the Parliament in 1831 and took some years to become established. In advance of this development, Mother Teresa started what were called ‘Poor Schools’ everywhere she set up a house. By degrees, a number of young Irish women joined Mother Teresa and became members of the IBVM. Unfortunately, consumption claimed the lives of many of these first sisters while they were still young. The cemetery at Abbey House, Rathfarnham bears witness to the great losses of those early years of the IBVM in Ireland, and to the extraordinary courage of women who carried on. IBVM(Loreto) is a multicultural, international Institute founded by an English woman, Mary Ward. We are known informally as Loreto Sisters. From these early Irish roots the sisters are now in many continents of the world. ‘Ours is an apostolic community whose focus is mission. We are a community for dispersion, inserted in the local culture, ready to go wherever we are sent.’ IBVM Constitutions Vol. ii 3.18. ..keeping always in view the greater service of God and the universal good’ Part 1 Chapter VII no. 650
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IBVM in England
It was poverty that drew the Loreto Sisters to England in 1851. The Irish famine had brought thousands of Irish men, women and children to the big cities of England and Scotland in search of work and accommodation. Initially they lived in crowded and squalid conditions.
Canon Toole of St Wilfred’s parish, Hulme, Manchester was only too aware of their misery and did all he could to alleviate it. He believed that education would enable the children of these poor people to escape from their terrible poverty. He knew that the Loreto Sisters had an excellent record for education in Ireland so he wrote to ask if they would come to Manchester to start a school for his beloved poor children. Mother Teresa Ball responded generously and sent a party of sisters led by Mother Anne Hickie. The sisters took charge of the parochial school and opened a small boarding school to help to subsidise it. The initial years were very difficult, particularly as they faced hostility in the anti-catholic neighbourhood.
In 1856, Mother Margaret Alphonsa Ellis became the new superior in Manchester. The memoirs portray her as “broadminded, full of wisdom, generous and of indomitable courage; in fact a noble and a valiant woman.”Over the years, the school expanded and by 1900 the sisters had charge of a boarding school, and a large Higher Grade day school on the Convent property, plus the Schools of St Wilfrid’s, St Lawrence’s, the Holy Name and Holy Family, a total of over 2300 children. Loreto College continued to provide education for girls of all ages until in 1977 it became a co-educational Sixth Form College, which continues to serve the needs of the Manchester area. It is a vibrant Institution at the heart of Manchester’s inner city regeneration and part of the global network of Loreto Schools/Colleges run by the Loreto Sisters on every continent.
Following the first foundation in Manchester, others were made across England, Scotland and Wales – some were closed as the need arose for the sisters to move into other ministries; but there are thriving schools to this day in Manchester, Altrincham and St Albans.
As members of the IBVM, we follow the spirituality of St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Our sense of mission is inseparable from our spirituality.
The English Province opened the ‘Courage to Move’ mission in 2004 – one sister has been missioned to Albania website www.albaniahope.com
Courage to Move over the past years has shown evidence that the invitation of the 2002 Courage to Move letter sent by the then Superior General, Mary Wright, was taken seriously. Many new missions are now established and developing in many countries of the world including South Sudan, Bangladesh, East Timor, Zambia and Albania.
In Albania the IBVM member and co-workers have opened an NGO Mary Ward Loreto to work against trafficking in human persons through direct action, education, and the empowerment of those most vulnerable. MARY WARD LORETO is planting hope with a human rights approach to combating modern day slavery. This challenging mission is implemented through works of justice, education, grass roots action and systemic change. The aim is to eradicate poverty, the prime cause for human trafficking.