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Changing habits

Women in time will do much." These were the prophetic words of Mary Ward (above), founder of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She dedicated her life in the late 16th and early 17th centuries to establishing an order of active religious women, similar to the Jesuits, at a time when Catholics were being persecuted in England and women were confined to enclosed orders by the church.

Mary Ward believed that an educated Catholic laity was vital for the life of the church and that women, as mothers and first educators of their children, had a prime role to play.

She provoked a storm of protest in the church, so she marched barefoot to Rome to plead with the Pope. But schools she established in Rome were closed and she was imprisoned as a heretic. She died believing her work to be in ruins. The IBVM, established in the early 17th century, was not confirmed by the church until 1877, and Mary Ward was not recognised as its foundress until 1909.

The nuns of the IBVM ditched their habits in 1987 and have made their schools independent of the community. Sister Lavinia Byrne, a spokeswoman for the order and a regular contributor to Radio 4's "Thought for the Day", says: "Nobody joins our community straight from those schools any more. We get women who come from the City, the Bar, from accountancy or voluntary work whose gifts don't necessarily match up with the teaching vocation."

The IBVM also works in prison education, in internment camps with refugees, and in advocacy "on behalf of the poor''. They also hold an increasing number of retreats.

Sister Lavinia says: "When Robbie Coltrane can dress up as a nun and look plausible, then we have to stop dressing like that. We had to stop using the protection of fancy clothes. The crisis in vocations has led us to rediscover the religious life that Mary Ward envisaged.

"Where once our schools produced fantastic nuns, now they will produce fantastic women doing good things. That's part of the development of Catholic life in this country, part of the democratisation of the church."

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