Mary Ward was born in 1585 into a wealthy recusant Catholic family near Ripon in Yorkshire. She received a good classical education, and then, at the age of 15, she decided upon the religious life, and entered the monastery of Poor Clares in St Omer. By 1609 she had gathered around her a group of companions determined to follow her guidance in founding an unclosed religious Order for women, along the lines of the Society of Jesus, which became known as the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary Ward believed that women were intellectually equal to men, and deserved an education that reflected that equality. The education of girls therefore remained central to her work, and for the next twenty years she travelled widely, often on foot, founding schools all over Europe. In 1639 , she returned to England, founding several free schools in London, before settling in Heworth, near York, where she founded a convent. Mary Ward died at St Mary’s School in York in 1645.
The Institute which Mary Ward founded continued its work in education in the following centuries. In 1885 Mother M Joseph Edwards opened a House in Ascot, named after Our Lady of the Snows, a name of which Mary Ward was particularly fond. St Mary’s School opened with just 19 pupils under the Headship of Sister Veronica Lund (1885-91). The earliest buildings remain at the heart of the school, including the Chapel, which was consecrated in 1906, and the layout of the estate included the rhododendrons and azaleas which still greet visitors as they come up the drive. Under Mother Cecilia Marshall, Headmistress from 1905-1921, the roll grew to 90, and the school established its reputation with alumnae as a happy family community to whom they were happy and keen to entrust their own daughters. Mother Ignatius Beveridge succeeded Mother Cecilia, and ran the school until 1949, during which time it acquired its reputation for professional high standards. University entrance became more common, and the school celebrated its first Oxbridge entrants. Errollston was opened in 1936 to cater for girls wanting to stay in education beyond 16.
Mother Bridget Geoffrey-Smith, Headmistress from 1956-76, remained true to the original founding mission of educating Catholic girls, but sought to broaden the intake and increase numbers. She employed the first full-time lay teacher, and made sure that external examinations were taken much more seriously. By 1970, Errollston had become so oversubscribed, and the syllabus had changed so much, that it was absorbed into the main school as a two-year academic Sixth Form. Sister Emmanuel Orchard then began the process of modernising the school, a task which Sister Mark Orchard then continued between 1982 and 1999. A Board of Governors was appointed, lay teachers became more common, and the IBVM gradually withdrew from direct involvement. In 1986, the management of the school was handed over to the St Mary’s School Trust. New buildings appeared, including the Science and Art Blocks, the indoor swimming pool, and Mary Ward Courtyard. When Sister Mark (now Sr Frances) retired from Headship in 1999, Mrs Mary Breen became the school’s first lay headmistress. She served for over twenty years, before handing over in 2019 to Mrs Danuta Staunton. The school roll settled at around 390, while expansion of the facilities continued, including a new theatre, libraries, sports centre, athletics track and a second Sixth Form boarding complex, which was completed in June 2018. Throughout all these changes, the school has remained true to the original aim of Mary Ward: the education of girls within a Catholic community. Mary Ward believed that ‘Women in time will come to do much’, and St Mary’s School Ascot is proud still to be fulfilling that vision.