Mary Ward spirit thrives 400 years on

22 Apr 2009

By The Record

After 400 years, Mary Ward and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary she founded, better known as the Loreto Sisters, are still vitally relevant today. Bridget Chamberlain reports


John XXIII student Caitlin McCarthy with students from Majella Catholic Primary School, Balga during Harmony Week activities.


AS part of a range of activities celebrating the life and teachings of Mary Ward, John XXIII College, along with six Loreto schools from across Australia, have participated in a student exchange.
As part of the Mary Ward Connect program on the week that commenced on March 9, John XXIII College hosted 36 Year 10 girls for a week and in turn sent 36 students (boys and girls) and six teachers to the six other Loreto secondary girls colleges   Loreto Coorparoo in Brisbane, Normanhurst and Kirribilli in Sydney, Marryatville in Adelaide, Toorak in Melbourne and Ballarat, Victoria.
The Loreto and John XXIII College students undertook a week-long program of activities, including a visit to Loreto Nedlands, where they attended a special assembly and took a guided tour conducted by Year 6 students.  During the week they also celebrated Harmony Day with an immersion visit to Majella Primary School, Balga.
Sister Marg Finlay, former Provincial of the Loreto Order in WA, said the celebrations are honouring Mary Ward’s visions, values, spirituality and prophetic response in a 21st century context.
“Her message for the contemporary Church was a call for the recognition of what women can do,” said Sister Marg.
Former student Shelia Pye spoke to the Loreto girls on March 11 at a function and shared her memories of her Loreto school days – from the nuns making pancakes on Shrove Tuesday to picnics with the nuns to celebrate the end of school.
 “Being educated at Loreto was a great blessing,” Mrs Pye said.  “We really felt the nuns loved us and they worked hard and intelligently to teach us.”
Mrs Pye has been connected with Loreto in Perth since 1940, when she began her schooling in Adelaide Terrace. “They were peaceful, simple times,” she said.
As part of the connection theme, a backpack is also making its way across Australia to visit all current Loreto communities.  Based on the concept of an Aboriginal message stick, it’s a form of communication that will be passed between different groups all sharing a common history.  Participants are invited to write in a journal and depict on a piece of silk, how the spirit of Mary Ward manifests itself in their community today.
After the backpack completes its Australian journey, it will travel to Rome from October 4-9 for the 400-year celebration of Loreto Sisters from all over the world.  There they will undertake a two or three-week guided pilgrimage to significant Mary Ward sites.
Values relevant then and now
Mary Ward, with her trust in God, her forgiveness of her enemies, her courage, determination and cheerful heart in the face of all troubles, is a model for all time. Loreto students are inspired by her independence of spirit, her strength of mind, her tenacity and her courage in breaking new ground. All those touched by Loreto teachings are encouraged to adopt the following values in all aspects of their lives:
Freedom – an inner freedom, accepting of self, open to others and trusting of life.
Justice – involves personal integrity based on harmonious relationship with God, with others and with the whole of creation.  It is expressed in works of justice, in active participation in the struggle to bring about harmony.
Sincerity – Mary Ward’s ideal was that ‘we should be as we appear and appear as we are’.
Verity – To do what we have to do well as we strive for integrity and truth.
Felicity – An attitude of mind, a disposition of the heart which manifests itself in cheerfulness, good humour, joy, happiness, hope, optimism, friendliness, courtesy, positive thinking, inner peace, self-acceptance and courage.
Challenge – To build a strong sense of Christian community within today’s society and to address the challenges within a rapidly changing culture and society.
Who was Mary Ward?
On a visit to England in 1609, Mary Ward received a “Glory Vision” which spelt out what God wanted of her.  She had dreamt of a women’s order like the Jesuits, to work in the community and particularly in the education of girls. Upon returning to France, she set up schools and communities because she believed education led to freedom. Her institute was suppressed and she was accused of being a heretic and imprisoned in 1631.  Mary Ward, the dangerous innovator, fought on and the charges were eventually dropped. Her Institute finally received approval of the Church in 1877 but she was not acknowledged as its founder until 1909.  After returning to England, she died in 1645 but surviving her is a network of schools in every continent and thousands of students learning under the umbrella of the Loreto Sisters. 
Having been in Perth since 1897, the Loreto Sisters first opened a school in Adelaide Terrace, which later moved to Claremont in 1901, and another in Nedlands in 1930, which still operates today. 
In 1977, the Claremont school was amalgamated with the Jesuit school, St Louis in Claremont to become John XXIII College. 
The Loreto Sisters were also active at Sacred Heart Thornlie, St Francis Xavier Armadale and then in Good Shepherd Kelmscott and Orana School Willetton.  Currently in Perth there are 11 Loreto sisters who are part of the 130-strong community in Australia.
Transforming Hearts
On the week commencing March 9, forty-two students from seven Loreto schools across Australia, including John XXIII College in Mount Claremont spent the day at Majella Catholic Primary School in Balga, learning about the diverse backgrounds of the students and the outstanding work being done by the school in providing enriching learning experiences for the entire community.
Nearly half of the students at Majella are refugees from a range of African countries, primarily Sudan, who have come to Perth in recent years under Australia’s  Humanitarian Program. The visit of the Loreto delegation coincided with the school’s celebration of Harmony Week, with its theme of ‘belonging together’.
Majella students shared elements of their diverse cultures and heritages with their visitors, including cooking a traditional Sudanese dish and painting each others faces to celebrate those cultures that paint their bodies for special occasions or as a mark of belonging.
The students joined together to play a variety of popular games from a range of countries. Knuckle bones, elastics, skipping and bocce were big hits.
“Today is about everybody in the world being happy,” said pre-primary student Kon, while Year 7 student Betress spoke about the benefits of being able to share her cultural heritage with the visitors. “We are all proud of our roots and it’s fun to show other people and learn about them.”
Caitlin McCarthy, a Year 10 student participating in the Mary Ward Connect program from John XXIII College, was moved and inspired by the day.
“It’s just incredible how different this is to my school. I’ve never come out to this area of Perth, or to a school like this with such diversity. It’s been an amazing experience just being here and meeting the kids and talking to the staff about life here,” she said.
Majella Principal Maureen Burke, herself a graduate of Loreto College in Claremont – now John XXIII College, also spoke at length to the Loreto contingent on March 12 to celebrate Harmoney Day with Loreto Connect students about some of the challenges faced by the school during the influx of refugee students following the humanitarian crises in Sudan in 2004.
“We had to try and learn how to deal with these kids. Intially we didn’t know what to do. We had children in distress about lining up because it brought back memories of the refugee camps where if they weren’t at the front of the queue, they missed out on food,” she said.
“We were dealing with ten year olds who had the responsibility of handling the family’s finances, negotiating with landlords and acting as translators. We had children turning up at schools at 6.30am because they had no concept of time. “Some even had no formal schooling with limited or no English so we gave them the opportunity to attend a six-month Intensive Language Course at an Intensive Language Centre. 
“We knew that we had to do something different, that we had to develop a different range of language, education and family health services for these students.”
The challenge for staff at Majella was being able to recognise the impact the refugee experience had on their students and respond with appropriate and targeted programs to assist with their learning and settlement in Australia. Firstly, the teachers themselves undertook professional development in refugee issues, English as a Second Language, literacy and numeracy strategies for children who have had little or no schooling and holistic education progams aimed at families and communities.
With input from a range of community organisations including the Association of Services to Torture and Trauma Surivors, the staff at Majella worked together to develop a range of innovative, culturally appropriate programs.
For example, they worked with Red Cross volunteers developing the Food Cents program to more than 20 parents. The program’s success led to a pilot program involving all Year 5, 6 and 7 students where they learned how to budget for a meal and also to cook healthy breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks.
Maureen Burke spoke about the importance of schools in the challenging resettlement process.
“Often schools represent the most dependable and constant community that many of these families have,” she said. “We’ve built up very good links and we’re able to help integrate families with other services too.
“When I look back over the last few years and see how far these children have come, I know we must be doing something right.”
The Loreto visitors were struck by the way in which the work being done at Majella is a true embodiment of the message and spirit of their schools’ founder.
The overarching vision of Mary Ward was to accompany, serve and defend the rights of the vulnerable, the marginalised and the forgotten. That vision is certainly alive and well in Catholic schools 400 years later.