My favourite place in York is passed by thousands of visitors and commuters every month.

Just a stone’s throw from the magnificent Micklegate bar is a beautiful Georgian house on the corner which often goes unnoticed. On the wall there is a plaque dedicated to Mary Ward, foundress and educator. The Bar Convent which bears her plaque is home to the sisters who belong to the Congregation of Jesus, which she founded.

Mary Ward was a woman ahead of her time. She was born in 1585 near Ripon, Yorkshire. A catholic in an age of religious intolerance, at 15 she realised that God was calling her to a religious life. Avoiding the suitors her family wished her to married Mary left Yorkshire for Europe and joined a contemplative order of catholic nuns.

She was content for a time but soon realised that she wished to go out and help people and did not believe gods work was best done from behind a convent wall. In Saint-Omer with a small group of friends she founded a community and a school for girls. She felt that following a Jesuit way of life, travelling anywhere the pope felt they were needed, was what God was urging her to do.

The founder of the Jesuit Order however forbade the female branch of his society. Mary declared, ‘There is no such difference between men and women that women may not do great matters … and I hope in God it will be seen that women in time to come will do much.’ Mary travelled to Rome to petition the Pope and founded many schools. These were closed by the pope and in 1631 Pope Urban VIII issued a Papal Bull describing Mary as a heretic and declared her religious order, called the ‘English Jesuitesses’, null and void. She was imprisoned in a convent in Munich. She was not allowed to communicate with the nuns but defied this order by writing lemon juice letters.

Mary was summoned to Rome for trial, by now in very poor health she was not expected to live long however she rallied and threw herself at the mercy of the pope who acknowledged that she was not a heretic, despite this he did not rescind the Bull. Permission was eventually granted for Mary to visit a spa for her health and she was able to return to England and Yorkshire. Mary’s companions that accompanied her and were with her at death, mostly returned to their families however some remained to live and pray together. One of these members Frances Bedingfield established the Congregation of Jesus in 1686, now the Bar Convent.

The community struggled to survive but still exists and is now run by the Diocese of Middlesbrough. Its magnificent chapel designed specially with eight different exits to allow the congregation to escape if raided by the authorities is still hidden from view as intended. Inside can be found the mummified hand of York’s other famous and strong lady, St Margaret of Clitherow, who was martyred for her faith in York 1586 and canonised 1970. Her shrine is on the Shambles. Just how the hand was taken is unsure but it is now protected behind glass in the chapel.The convent is extremely welcoming and now boasts an interesting museum along with its café and hostel. Definitely worth a visit for an oasis of calm and exceedingly good cake also.

Michele Thompson
@gotguided twitter