Angela Merici, Foundress of the Ursulines
Strive to be faithful to that which God has called you.
– St Angela Merici
Angela Merici was a lay Franciscan who founded the Company of St Ursula – named for the legendary princess and virgin martyr St Ursula, patroness of universities – in 1535, with the purpose of educating girls.
Born on a farm in 1474, Angela was orphaned when she was ten years old. She and her sister were taken in by an uncle. When her sister died suddenly without the last rites, Angela was very distressed. She was comforted by a vision of her sister in Heaven with a procession of angels and virgins, like Jacob’s Ladder (Genesis 28:12).
A Solemn Vow
The 15-year-old Angela became a Franciscan tertiary, a laywoman living by the spirituality of St Francis. She was very beautiful, and people often complimented her lustrous hair. To avoid the attention, she covered her locks in soot. She had vowed to dedicate herself completely to God as a consecrated lay virgin.
When she was twenty, her uncle died, and she returned to live with her brothers, on her own property which would have been her dowry had she chosen to marry. She received another vision, that she was to establish an association of virgins who would devote their lives to teaching young girls, ensuring they received the Catholic faith.
In obedience to God’s will, Angela gathered twelve young women in the city of Brescia and began her life’s work. These women made a commitment of their lives on 25 November 1535, the feast day of St Catherine of Alexandria, another early Christian virgin martyr. They were the very first teaching order of female religious sisters.
Angela’s aim was to nourish and sanctify families through educating future wives and mothers in Christian virtue. She observed: “Disorder in society is the result of disorder in the family.”
Angela also wrote in her Spiritual Testament: “Mothers of children, even if they have a thousand, carry each and every one fixed in their hearts, and because of the strength of their love they do not forget any of them. In fact, it seems that the more children they have, the more their love and care for each one is increased.”
She knew that the family is the domestic church, the first school of love for every child, and if she and her religious sisters could foster the faith and intellect of young girls, that would produce significant positive flow-on effects for future generations.
Charity Begins at Home
Angela made a pilgrimage to Rome to gain the indulgences of the Jubilee Year. Pope Clement VII had heard of her virtue, and invited her to expand her work to Rome. However, Angela disliked the limelight, and chose to return to her humble hometown.
Angela taught her religious sisters to serve God while remaining in the world, teaching the girls in their own neighbourhoods, meeting regularly for prayer, and practising a form of religious life in their own homes, following a Rule of Life emphasising celibacy, poverty and obedience. Pope Paul III approved her Rule in 1544.
When Angela died in Brescia on 27 January 1540, there were 24 communities of the Company of St Ursula serving throughout the region. Her body was clothed in the habit of a Franciscan tertiary and was interred in the Church of Sant’Afra, where Angela had spent many hours praying at the tombs of the Brescian martyrs. Her body remained there until the church was destroyed by bombs in World War II. Angela’s incorrupt remains survived the bombing, and are still available for veneration in Brescia.
Woman of Faith
St Angela Merici’s life is a testament to the good which can flourish when a single person assents to God’s calling, becoming a flame which lights other candles, causing a cascade of love throughout space and time. Today, the Secular Institute of Saint Angela Merici or the Angelines are present in 23 countries throughout the world, including Singapore.
How is God calling you to serve today? Are there ways in which you can display God’s love to those in your neighbourhood, as St Angela did?
Do not lose heart, even if you should discover that you lack qualities necessary for the work to which you are called. He who called you will not desert you, but the moment you are in need, He will stretch out His saving hand.
– St Angela Merici