In my summer studies here at Creighton University, I’ve learned that a few women actually took Jesuit vows.
Isabel Roser supported Ignatius in the early days of his vocation, during his time as a street preacher and beggar in Barcelona. She and her husband were among the wealthy sponsors the saint found among the aristocracy of Spain.
In 1541, Isabel was widowed, and pondered the possibility of cloistered life. Instead, she went to Rome and helped the Jesuits found and manage the House of Saint Martha, an attempt to rescue girls and young women from prostitution.
Isabel wanted a deeper commitment to her new life, and when her benefactor withheld his encouragement, she went to the pope. For whatever reason, Pope Paul III endorsed the request. Isabel and two companions took vows in the Society of Jesus on Christmas Day in 1545:
I, Isabel Roser, widow … promise and solemnly vow before God our Almighty Lord, in the presence of the Holy Virgin Mary my mistress, St Jerome and the heavenly court of paradise and before all who are present–and before you most Reverend Father Ignatius … perpetual poverty, according to the limits which are laid upon me by your Reverence, chastity, and obedience to the rule of life laid before me by your Reverence.
Hugo Rahner (the editor of the 1960 release of St Ignatius Loyola: Letters to Women) referred to this as “a far from welcome Christmas present,” and just four months later Ignatius petitioned the Holy Father to release these women from their vows.
Oh well. It would have made for a most interesting history if women had been among the Jesuits from the beginning. In many ways, they were. Ignatius must have been possessed of a powerfully charismatic personality to have lassoed so much support from his connections in the aristocracy, and then to inspire lives of service from women–not just Isabel.
As you might imagine, Isabel and Ignatius suffered an estranged relationship for a number of years as a result of this “experiment.” Eventually they reconciled. She returned to Spain and opened an orphanage in Barcelona. She eventually joined a Franciscan convent, and beyond these early days, no woman (that we know of) has officially been a member of the Society of Jesus.