The Loreto Sisters belong to one branch of the Institute of the ‘Congregatio Jesu’, earlier called the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM), the religious order founded by an English Woman from a recusant background, Mary Ward in 1609. Mary Ward was inspired by ignation spirituality and the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. She had a vision for a different, new and modern mode of religious life for women. She envisioned women living a life in companionship and discernment, inspired by the gospel and engaging with the world without the constraint of the traditional cloister, nor an established ‘Rule’, placing them under the governance of men in intellect and should be educated accordingly. The circumstances of the time and the suspicion of Jesuits did not allow her to succeed with the foundation of an order according to her vision.
Today the order she inspired is worldwide and is divided into two main groups known as the Loreto Branch (formally the Irish and North American Branches) and the Congregation of Jesus (formally named the Roman Branch)
Article from Pioneer Volume LIII No 4 (April 2001)
THE FIRST LORETO SISTER
In the Footsteps of Mary Ward
Sr. Camilla Roche IBVB writes about how Frances Teresa Ball was inspired by the example of a Yorkshire woman, Mary Ward who died about 150 years before her own birth, to found the Irish branch of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Frances Ball was born in January 1794 at 47 Eccles Street Dublin, the sixth and youngest daughter of Isabella and John Ball. Her father, a convert to Catholicism, his wife and family were exemplary in their practice of the faith. John Ball was a very wealthy man. His business, as a silk merchant had flourished beyond all expectations, and his change in religion had cost him little in financial terms. He was almost sixty -six years of age when Frances was born, and he had a special affection for this child of his old age. Frances, therefore, was born into a privileged background, and was brought up in circumstances of great comfort, even luxury.
The provision of a Catholic education, however, was a problem for wealthy families like the Balls. There were a few ill-equipped Catholic schools leading a furtive existence in the back streets of Dublin, but in those class-conscious days, there was only one school in the country considered suitable for Catholic girls – the Ursuline Convent in Cork. The Balls decided to send their eldest girl, Cecilia, there as a boarder and she subsequently joined the Ursuline community. None of her other sisters went to Cork, probably due to political unrest in Ireland after the 1798 rebellion. Some of the Ball’s friends had sent their children to England to complete their education. The Jesuit College in Stonyhurst and Mary Ward’s Bar Convent in York were highly recommended. So, in 1800, it was decided that Frances’s two sisters would go to York, and her only brother to Stonyhurst. Frances, who was only six at the time, remained at home -a joy to her parents.
1803 came and it was Frances’s turn to go to York. It was arranged that Mrs Ball would travel to York, bring Frances with her and collect her two older sisters, who were now finished school. Frances’s separation from her father, who was now over 75 years old and in failing health, was a great sorrow. As her elder sister said goodbye, she tried to comfort her lonely little sister -her farewell words to her in the Convent garden were “Seek first the kingdom of God and all things shall be added unto you”. These words stayed with Frances for the rest of her life.
In 1808 she returned to Dublin and lived with her widowed mother, sharing in her sister’s charitable activities, yet enjoying all the pleasures offered by Dublin, which at the time was the social capital of Europe. On Sunday March 10, there came a decisive moment in Frances’s life. The circumstances could not have been more unlikely. As she was dancing the hours away at her coming-out ball, the words that she heard in the garden in York came back to her as clearly and as plainly as if a voice was speaking in her ear: “Seek ye first…” Suddenly, she knew with total certainty the direction of her future -a call to religious life. She confided her story to her director, Archbishop Daniel Murray, who encouraged her in her vocation but felt she was too young to make a final decision. Her mother, however, strongly opposed her desire, until one morning at Mass, a sermon on the wrong done by parents who oppose their children’s vocation made her change her mind.
It was not until 1814, four years after she had told Dr Murray of her vocation, that he judged that the time had come. Frances’s idea was to become a member of the IBVM community in York, but Dr Murray had other ideas. He had already founded the Sisters of Charity to nurse the sick, and now he wanted a sisterhood in his diocese to provide Catholic education especially for middle-class girls, who would be in a position of influence in the community. He had already asked the Superior of the Bar Convent to establish a house of Mary Ward’s Institute in Dublin, but she was unable to facilitate him. She was willing, however, to form and train a candidate and prepare her to found a house of the Institute in Ireland. It was a huge responsibility to lay on a 20-year old, but Frances accepted it out of obedience.
Frances spent 7 years training in York and returned to Dublin in 1821 with two companions, still novices. The Archbishop had purchased Rathfarnham House for them on the outskirts of Dublin. The house was not habitable, so the Sisters of Charity in Stanhope Street offered them hospitality for 9 months. In May 1822, Frances rented a house in Harold’s Cross and finally moved into Rathfarnham House on November 22 1822. She decided to call their new convent “Loreto House”, and from that time her nuns became known as Loreto Sisters. It is significant that Mary Ward had a special devotion to the shrine of Loreto and had visited it twice. Almost single-handed, seeing many of her young Sisters fall ill, and even die, Frances, now Mother Teresa, set to work to build up the Institute in Ireland. For a number of years she herself trained the novices, who came in increasing numbers. By 1842 she had the beautiful Church of the Sacred Heart built in Rathfarnham and established Perpetual Adoration there.
In 1846 she organised the first enclosed Retreat for lay women in Ireland. In the meantime she was building up her schools, calling on the educational legacy of Mary Ward, giving them an inspiration and a stamp of excellence.