The Way of BeautySt. Ignatius of Loyola and his letters to women

Today, men and women living the Ignatian charism celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus in 1540 as a peripatetic Order. It was commissioned to lead church reform regardless of where it would take its members. Of the 7,000 letters Ignatius wrote, some one hundred letters are addressed to women, most of whom helped him in various ways during those graced beginnings. “The Society owes its existence to many women,” writes Rogelio Garcia-Mateo (“Ignatius of Loyola and Women: Theology Digest,” 45:1:27-32). Hugo Rahner, S.J. has collected and contextualized these letters in his book, “Letters to Women.” Paralleling Rahner’s historical narrative, this short, limited essay pays tribute to some of those women who dedicated themselves to the Ignatian apostolate in those early years.

Manresa (1522-23)

At Manresa, where Ignatius the pilgrim composed the Spiritual Exercises, several women looked after his needs. Among them were Iñes Pascual, an influential widow, and Hieronima Claver, administrator of Santa Lucia hospital for the indigent, and Isabel Roser, perhaps his most generous supporter. In 1532, Ignatius writes to her: “...for to you I owe more than anyone I know in my life” (“Letters,” 265). At Manresa, his world-vision was born and began to take shape, and women, known as Iñigas, were the first to benefit from the graces received there because they did the Exercises. The first members of his inchoate and primitive company were women.

The Narrative Continues

Ignatius pursued studies in philosophy and theology in Barcelona, Alcalá, Salamanca, Paris, and they did pastoral work in Venice between 1524-38. In Barcelona, he attracted some noble women who did the Exercises and, with him, ministered to the poor and sick. In addition to Iñes, Heironima, and Isabel, who supplied him with food, there were other ladies of Barcelona who were drawn to his mission: Estefania de Requesens, Guiomar Gralla, and Isabel de Josa, a lady of recognized culture.

In Salamanca too, Ignatius enlisted women to share his ministry, among them, Leonor Mascarenhas. Shortly before his death in 1556, he wrote to her, “How much I have had you and still have you in my inmost soul – and would do so still in the future – if possible.” (“Letters,” 430)

In Paris, Ignatius continued his studies, now with his small band of companions. Financial need forced him again to request help from the ladies of Barcelona who had kept in touch with him. He shrewdly devised a plan when asking for money from each of these women, and he asked Iñes Pascual to organize the ladies’ activities: “I still think that when you tell [Doña Gralla] about me, she will certainly want to participate in the alms given to me. In this as in all other questions, I shall consider whatever you do as best, and I shall remain contented, for I am continually in your debt and for the future, I shall always be under an obligation to you.” (“Letters,” 182-3) These women provided Ignatius and his small band with care packages, and their support enabled them to pursue their studies in theology to completion. The founding of the new Order and its rapid growth would have been much more difficult, perhaps impossible, without their support.

St. Martha’s House

In Rome, Ignatius created an organization where women could help other women. These houses of prostitution were numerous. Whenever help came to free women from prostitution, the cloister was their only option. But some felt no call to become nuns. In 1543, after receiving financial support, mostly from women, and with some ecclesiastical backing, Ignatius founded St. Martha’s, a house for young and endangered girls. These women formed an association called “La Compania della Grazia” under the patronage of Cardinal Carpi, at whose request the Society undertook its temporary spiritual direction. The wealthy lay women, associated with St. Martha’s, included Lucrezia de Bradine, Juana de Aragón, and Leonor Osorio. Donna Osorio took sixteen young prostitutes into her household to procure marriage dowries for them. The work of St. Martha’s blossomed and became a model for foundations in Italy and Spain. At the end of 1543, eighty women were seeking a new life at St. Martha’s in Rome. On one occasion, the noblewoman Margaret of Austria sent Ignatius 300 ducats for distribution among the poor. (“Letters,” 19) In 1539, Faustina de’ Jancolini bequeathed her house and lands to Ignatius, and in 1554, Donna Maria Frassoni gave 70,000 gold scudi for the construction of the Jesuit church and college in Ferrara. The largest donors were called “the most loving mothers of the Society of Jesus.” (“Letters,” 15,199, 211, 223)

Women Seek Admittance into the Jesuit Order

Between 1545-1552, several of these women, some of whom were widowed, sought admittance into the Society. Thus began a tense period between Ignatius and the very women on whom he depended to assist the Society. Many did the Exercises and were committed to the Society’s expanding mission. If admitted to the Order, they reasoned that the flexibility afforded the men would apply to them as well. Then they could continue their activities as they had as laywomen, but now as vowed and itinerant members of the Society, and not as cloistered nuns. Though logical, this inventive idea was a failure in the making.

By 1545, the young Order was asked to help in the reform of convents and monasteries, a priority of the Catholic Reformation. Sr. Teresa Rejadella, a Poor Clare nun, and others sought admission into the Society because of corrupt conditions in monasteries. Of the four letters Ignatius wrote to Sr. Teresa, the first remains a model of spiritual direction. One excerpt reads as follows: “The enemy [the evil spirit] is trying to upset you in two ways: first, that he sets before you and persuades you to cultivate a false humility; the second, that he strives to instill into you an excessive fear of God with which you are too much taken up and occupied.” (“Letters,” 331)

Meanwhile, other lay women attempted to imitate Isabel’s initiative: Francis Borgia’s sisters-in-law, Juana de Meneses Barreto, and the wealthy Sebastiana Exarch were ready to make a vow of obedience to their confessors after completing the Exercises – Sebastiana, without her  husband’s knowledge! That same year, the widowed and childless Isabel Roser, Lucrezia de Bradine, and Francisca Cruyllas working at St. Martha’s, asked to be admitted into the Order. The three women pronounced their vows before a reluctant Ignatius, and a female branch of the Society was temporarily established. The rule of enclosure however held sway – not exactly what they expected – and they would depend on the Society for regular spiritual direction. (“Letters,” 31-2) When Isabel embroiled Ignatius in family problems, he could anticipate conflict and asked Pope Paul III for help. In 1547, a decree, Licet debitum, freed the Society from any permanent responsibility for women. It reinforced the Society’s promise of mobility, granting its General permission to send members anywhere to teach theology and all disciplines. From 1547 onward, Ignatius instructed his men to avoid or limit, out of prudence and on principle, the permanent spiritual direction of women and nuns.

Headstrong Women

In 1552, Jacoba Pallavicino-Parma da Scipione and several women pronounced their vows in the Society and sent Ignatius the vow formula. Ignatius declined to accept their vows. More than once, the headstrong Jacoba interfered with the Society’s apostolic plans by trying to influence Ignatius’ use of his men. Even before the canonical approval of the Society, she intended to donate 500 gold pieces to Ignatius besides her dowry. All requests met with a resounding no from Ignatius despite any offering of financial assistance.

In 1553, Jacoba sent another letter to Ignatius with plans to set up a college in Parma and in Cremona with her large donations. She submitted a detailed plan, with an initial payment, to found a convent of nuns under the Society’s rule and constitutions. This would make them female Jesuits. She signed the letter, “Jacoba of the Society of Jesus.” Rahner notes that this was “too much even for the patience of Ignatius”...who stated unequivocally that “such plans were against the rules of the Society.” (“Letters,” 319)

There were still other women who sought admittance into the Order: Leonor Mascarenhas, Teresa Rejadella, Hieronyna Oluja, María, Queen of Austria, Countess Osorio, and Juana Requesens. They implored Ignatius to grant their requests, but in vain.

More in The Way of Beauty

Princess Juana, Regent of Spain

In 1555, by way of exception, Princess Juana, the imperious daughter of Charles V and sister of Philip II, pressed her way into the Society through her acquaintance with Francis Borgia. A request denied might have jeopardized work of the Society in Spain. Thus, after considerable consultation, shrewd and reluctant, the decision was made to accept the princess, but her membership was to be kept a strict secret lest other noblewomen might decide to join. She was referred to as ‘Mateo Sanchez.’ Juana’s courtly way of life was to remain unchanged, and she engaged in worldly affairs on behalf of the Society. Her apostolic availability was limited although she did what was possible within the parameters of her double-life as a monarchial Jesuit. She was her own boss, and she freely exercised her power. To work unencumbered in Spain, Ignatius bowed to her wishes and avoided recriminations from her brother and father, who did not like the Jesuits. She took first vows as a scholastic but never became a fully professed member of the Society.

On the one hand, Juana’s power helped the Society in Spain, defending them against the attacks of some churchmen. She donated 3,000 ducats (about $750,000) toward the founding of a college at Valladolid, and she wrote a letter in favor of the foundation in Louvain.

On the other hand, the Princess caused anxiety when “murmurs began to arise in Spain and especially in court circles against the ‘Jesuit government’...and against ‘jesuitical practices” in her “palatial convent.” (“Letters,” 59) In 1573, the anomalous Lady Jesuit died, outliving Ignatius by seventeen years. The experiment was never again repeated.

Rahner notes that Ignatius favored the establishment of a company of women who, with missionary mobility, could devote themselves entirely to charitable and social work. This  “lightning-flash” would not be realized until the mid-seventeenth century.

Some years ago, I asked a mentor, W. Norris Clarke, S.J., an internationally prominent Jesuit priest and philosopher, if he knew about the significant role women played in the development of the early Society. “They never told us anything about this,” he replied.

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