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Sisters Shaping Futures: Exploring the Impact of Mary Ward’s Vision on Girls’ Education in India

Alexandra Verini, Assistant Professor in the Department of English, explores the impact of Mary Ward's vision on girls' education in India, unraveling its complexities through historical and literary analysis. Her work sheds light on how Ward's ideas continue to shape educational practices and societal norms in India today.

27 March, 2024 | 5m read

Mary Ward was born more than 400 years ago, but her life and her vision still have an impact on the world today, specifically on girls’ education in India. Ward was a Catholic born in post-Reformation England. She consequently left her homeland for Continental Europe, where she founded a new group for Catholic women. This group allowed them to be active in the world instead of staying secluded in a convent. During her lifetime, Ward often fell afoul of the Church due to her radical ideas. By the end of her life most of the houses she had founded in Europe had shut down, after a period of house arrest, she died back in England.

However, Ward’s vision of education for Catholic girls lived on in the Sisters of Loreto, founded by Sister Frances Mary Teresa Ball in the early 19th century. Ball named this new convent Loreto House, in honor of Ward’s devotion to the shrine of the Virgin Mary in Loreto, Italy. It was this Irish offshoot of Ward’s mission that came to India in the 19th century due to the efforts of a committee of Irish, Portuguese, Armenian, and Dutch women, known as the Ladies of the Nun Committee, who raised money to start a Catholic school for girls in Kolkata, India. After an exhausting four-month trip from Ireland around Cape Good Hope, the sisters arrived in Kolkata on 30 December 1841, greeted with some fanfare. In the years that followed, they set up the Loreto Schools, a network of educational institutions that became some of the most respected schools for girls in India.

When I came to India in 2018, my research background in early modern England drew me to the continued presence of Mary Ward in North India. While she remains largely a marginal figure in academia, with just a few scholarly books devoted to her, I discovered that she had a tangible presence in the minds of Loreto pupils. Many of my students and colleagues at Ashoka University had studied at Loreto schools, which prominently displayed pictures of Ward on their walls, and her life history was taught. However, while I had known Ward as a radical figure, challenging the norms of her religion and the patriarchal Catholic Church, I discovered that her role in India was more nuanced. On one hand, her schools provided quality education for women; but on the other hand, they also propagated colonial values, imposing “ladylike values” on Indian girls and erasing aspects of Indian heritage.

Working with my colleague Yashaswini Chandra, who is now a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, I co-authored an article that delved into records of the Loreto sisters—comprising histories and school magazines—alongside Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel about nuns in the Himalayas, Black Narcissus. Our aim was to explore how the portrayal of nuns compared in Godden’s fictional India and the historical reality. What we found surprised us. While Godden’s novel is often praised for its anti-imperialist stance, our analysis revealed that it still retains significant elements of orientalism, portraying the East in a manner that romanticizes and exoticizes it. Meanwhile, the Loreto Schools, while they did exhibit racist and colonialist tendencies, they also helped in giving education to Indian girls early on, which was a step towards women’s rights. By reading a novel alongside Loreto’s historical archives, we found that the standard portrayal of nuns— as regressive and lacking agency— does not always hold up. Our research invites readers—both in academia and outside—to look beyond our assumptions about the past; it also prompts us to examine our present and consider how our institutions have been shaped by complex histories that continue to influence our lives.

(Edited by Dr Yukti Arora, Senior Manager, Academic Communications, Research and Development Office, Ashoka University)

Reference Article:
Sister acts: Nuns in Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus and at the Loreto Convents in India

Authors: Yashaswini Chandra, Alexandra Verini

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