In a comment to the post “Thank you, Ignatius!”, a friend asked me about Ignatius and women. I will attempt here to answer her more at length.

In his article entitled “Ignatius and Ministry With Women” (in a supplement on “Women and Ignatian Spirituality In Dialogue”, British Jesuit magazine The Way), James W. Reites wrote:

There are three main areas where Ignatius engaged in collaborative ministry with women: patronage, where women gave financial support for various apostolic works; advocacy, where Ignatius sought their influence to foster ministerial work; and active collaborative work, where women actively engaged in apostolic ministry. Many of these overlap; some women were involved in all three, some in only two or one. (7)

From the notes I received (Jose Garcia de Castro, SJ, Comillas University, Madrid) and took in Manresa last Spring, with additional information from Reites’s article, I share below a brief outline on “Women and the First Ignatians”.

1. Presence and absence of women in the ‘first’ Iñigo

a. 1491-1505: Women in his family, in Loyola. Ignatius lost his mother early and was raised by his sister-in-law, Doña Magdalena de Arraoz, who had served as lady-in-waiting to the Queen Isabella the Catholic. She is the one who will give him the two books which will lead to his conversion and his decision to follow Christ.

b. 1506-1521: Women in the Court, both in Arévalo and Nájera: He was a ladies’ man, cut quite an attractive figure despite his being short. His legs being seriously wounded, with one badly broken, during the Battle of Pamplona in 1521, were a great shock to him and a direct blow to his self-image.

c. 1521: Women in his Fantasy: Loyola
    The six months or so, Ignatius lived in Loyola after his being wounded in Pamplona (1521-22), he spent a lot of them daydreaming, and half of those daydreams were about returning to the Court and being once again a great courtier (he really wanted to impress a ‘great lady’). The other half, of course, was his desire of becoming a great saint, like St Francis or St Dominic.

2. The First Women Companions of Inigo

a. 1522, in Manresa. The women following Ignatius were called “Yñigues”. If you go to his Autobiography, you will find them mentioned there. One very wise old woman predicted him that he would have a vision of Jesus. In Manresa, as everywhere else, women supported him financially and also with their tender loving care. While he was seized in a mystical rapture for eight or nine days, women kept by his side, taking care of him.

b. 1523-1525: Women, both Devout and Benefactors, in Barcelona
i. Circle of Inés Pascual, a Catalan widow. She found him lodgings and supported his stay in both Manresa and Barcelona. The very first letters
ii. Circle of Isabel Roser (later on, she will go with two friends to Rome to become a Jesuit, having appealed to the Pope for help, who ordered  Ignatius to take them in.)
iii. Circle of religious women in the monastery in Barcelona

Devout Women in Alcalá and Salamanca. In both places, Ignatius had problems with the Inquisition (in all, over his lifetime, Ignatius was arrested twelve times by the Inquisition). Women supported Ignatius financially. They also came to visit him, even in prison, for spiritual direction. At one time, both a mother and a daughter came to see him in his cell, which created some sort of scandal.

d. 1543-1546: Women “Jesuitesses” in Rome

A note here about Rome, about which Reites says:

The best example of Ignatius’ collaborative ministry with women centres around the formation of the Compagnia della Grazia. This was a group of women and men who supported the Casa di Santa Marta (I do not know whether this house has any connection where Pope Francis lives), a place founded by Ignatius in order to provide new lives for the prostitutes of Rome. There were plenty of candidates for the Casa… (as many as 9,000 prostitutes out of perhaps 70,000 inhabitants).
… Women of the highest social level in Rome belonged to the Compagnia… This then was a ministry to women, begun by Ignatius, but carried on actively by women…

Isabel Roser (see b.ii) was connected somehow to the Casa. After her husband’s death, she decided to go to Rome “to put herself under obedience to Ignatius”. She desired a “female branch of the Society of Jesus.” Against Ignatius’ wishes, she and two companions went to Rome. On Christmas day in 1545, he accepted their profession. They started running the Casa, forming a congregation of women. Apparently, she did not take well to the “demands of religious life” and took way too much of Ignatius’ time. In May 1546, Ignatius obtained a dispensation of the women’s vows. Dona Roser returned to Barcelona.

e. 1544: Circle of Valencia and Gandía
Small circle in Valencia
Circle around monasteries in Gandía

“Isabel Roser was not the only one who wanted to live under obedience to Ignatius. Up until the time of his death, twenty-nine women wanted to take vows. Some of them even took vows privately, without telling Ignatius, and signed their names adding ‘S.J.’ Moreover some twenty communities of religious women requested to be directed by Jesuits.” (14)


Now comes possibly the main reasons why women could not join the Society of Jesus.

“Since in Ignatius’ day communities of religious women, Jesuit women included, were required to live in cloister, both they and their Jesuit priests would be tied down to one place. Ignatius saw the role of the Jesuits as mobile, needing to go at a moment’s notice to where there was greatest need…. Another consideration was the newness of the Society. It was only just getting started and had few members and many requests for them. With more and more demands for Jesuit priests to take up the pastoral care of women and the consequent lack of mobility that Ignatius envisioned for the Society, he decided that his order should not have women as subjects. After his experience with Doña Roser, then, Ignatius obtained from Pope Paul III the Bull Licet Debitum in 1549 prohibiting the Jesuits from having religious women subject to their obedience.

There was nevertheless one case of a woman Jesuit, Princess Juana S.J.

“Princess Juana of Austria was nineteen in 1554 and Regent of Spain when she took the vows of a Jesuit scholastic. She remained a Jesuit in secret for the rest of her life, until she died at the age of 38 in 1573” (Look for her story on the link given above to The Way supplement).

This is all I can tell you about Ignatius and women at this time.

For those of you who thirst to find out more about the relationship of Ignatius and Women, check Hugo Rahner, SJ’s book, St Ignatius Loyola: Letters to Women.

Finally, in the Diccionario de Espiritualidad Ignaciana, you will find an entry on “Mujer” by Eileen Burke-Sullivan, which I have only in Spanish and which I need to translate.

I hope this satisfies some of your curiosity.


PS: A last word (?) — In its 34th General Congregation of 1995, the Society of Jesus addressed the “Jesuits and the Situation of Women in Church and Civil Society”. This Decree names the unjust treatment and exploitation of women as a central concern of a mission which seeks to integrate faith and justice. Read more

PPS: I must say that in my encounters with Jesuit priests, I have met some who are more feminists than many of my women friends. They have asked a couple of us to give a sermon on one occasion, to give points at retreats, and are not afraid of the day women will be priests. On the other hand, of course, there are other Jesuit priests who are just the opposite, or somewhere in-between.

Art: Princess Juana, S.J. (also Joanna, Juliana)