Women Leaders in the Liturgical Movement: Maisie Ward (1889-1975)

Moderator’s note: Today we have the next post in the Pray Tell series on women leaders in the Liturgical Movement. Dr. Katharine Harmon will offer a series of posts in this series from now until December 4, 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of the approval of the Vatican II liturgy constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium. (The first post in the series is here.)

In 1933, the London-based book company, Sheed and Ward, opened a publishing office in New York City. Expanding one’s company in the midst of the Great Depression was surprising enough, but the content of Sheed and Ward’s catalogue was also innovative. While most Catholic book publishers relied on “rosaries, medals, and statues” to balance the budget, Sheed and Ward dedicated itself to promoting the best books on Roman Catholic theology, history, and social action, by writers across North America and Europe. The final surprise: the “Ward” in Sheed and Ward belonged to a woman, named Maisie.

Maisie Ward and her husband, Frank Sheed, met through their mutual involvement in the Catholic Evidence Guild in London in the early 1920s. This apologist group sought to counter the influx of communist speakers on the open-air lecture circuit, by giving engaging lessons in Catholic history and theology to “everyday laboring people.” In future years, Ward would look back to her young activist days as the bedrock for her passion in inviting lay men and women to take initiative in learning about and participating in their faith. 

In the United States, Ward’s interest in lay activity, and her work as vice-president of Sheed and Ward, directly intersected with the work of the liturgical movement at large. Many of the books on theology and history referenced and taught by members of the liturgical movement came from the Sheed and Ward catalogue. Meanwhile, Ward, through her own writing and continued lecturing, stressed the ability of all Catholics, from labor union members to college students to children, to have theological insight, and to become active members of the Mystical Body of Christ. Ward’s lectures were particularly impressive to young Catholic women. “Mary Kate,” writing from Trinity College in Washington, D.C., sent Ward a fan letter in 1935:

“Your lecture…impressed the dear nuns profoundly, and their enthusiasm has been communicated to their sisters at Trinity to such an extent that I think that even the unpardonable crime of being a woman would never be held against you again.”

Ward delighted in bringing theological ideas to her audiences, inviting them to engage their faith. Likewise, she defended practical endeavors on the part of the liturgical movement to engage the faithful in a dynamic, participatory understanding of the Mass. Summing the various efforts of the liturgical movement to enhance lay participation, Ward observed in 1961:

“If it is our sacrifice we must know what is happening and take part in it. The words at the altar should be audible. What mass is being said should be announced, especially if the Proper is not being read in the vernacular. If at all possible we should be able to see. …An altar at which the priest faces the people [is] far better than one at which his back is turned to them. The dialogue [Mass] has done more to make the mass understood than anything else in my lifetime; and wherever it is adopted it has swept away such nineteenth century practices as the rosary said aloud at mass, or (even more distressing) the novenas that prevailed in so many American churches….”

In Ward’s view, Catholics might not only be educated in the Mystical Body through their intellectual training, but by their experience of being one body at worship, through physical modes of visual, auditory, and oral engagement in the ritual of the Mass. The liturgy itself could teach people to be the Mystical Body of Christ. 

Maisie Ward and Frank Sheed remained involved in their publishing company through its “height” in the 1950s and 1960s, until they sold the company in 1973. Ward died in New York City in 1975.   

Katharine E. Harmon, Ph.D., is Lecturer in Theology at Marian University in Indianapolis. She is author of the 2013 Liturgical Press book There Were Also Many Women There: Lay Women in the Liturgical Movement in the United States, 1926-1959.

4 comments

  1. Sheed and Ward books were my standard fare when I became a Catholic in 1960. a few years later they came to Honolulu to the then Chaminade College. She spoke on Chesterton and he on St Augustine. Very witty and a great team.
    The event was considered so important that local convent superiors decided to break the bishop’s rule of no nuns out after 8 PM and allowed the sisters to come. the place was packed. As one sister of St Joseph sitting behind me said as one group after another of sisters showed up, “well, honey, this is going to be an historical night.” It was.

    1. @Halbert Weidner – comment #1:
      Halbert, What a wonderful anecdote! Thanks for sharing that story. It’s amazing to me to come across people who knew and experienced these wonderful leaders.

  2. History is fascinating. Thank you Katharine for two very interesting reads. I’m looking forward to discovering the next leader you write about.

  3. I enjoy these posts about women leaders in the liturgical movement. The liturgical movement seems to be a bit of a common ground for traditionalists, progressives, and ROTR alike since all groups were influenced by it and consider themselves inheritors of it. The movement was very successful at instilling the notion in all three groups that people should be able to understand, follow, and participate in the liturgy even though they might not agree on how.

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