The Catholic Defender: Saint Angela Merici
Angela Merici has the double distinction of founding the first of what are now called “secular institutes” and the first teaching order of women in the Church.
St. Angela Merici was an Italian religious educator and founder of the Ursulines whose deep prayer life and relationship with the Lord bore the fruit of mystical encounters with God. She was born on March 21, 1474 in Desenzano, a small town on the shore of Lake Garda in Lombardy.
Born in Desenzano, Italy, she was orphaned in her teens. As a young woman, with her heart centered on Christ, Angela joined the Third Order of St. Francis and embraced austerity. In a visionary experience, she felt called to found a “company” of women.
At just 10-years-old, Angela and her older sister became orphans and went to live with their uncle in Salo. There they led a quiet and devout Catholic Christian life. After the untimely death of her sister, Angela was saddened by the fact the that she had not had the opportunity to receive her last Sacraments and was concerned for her sister's eternal salvation.
When Angela was 20-years-old, her uncle died and she returned to Desenzano. She found that around her hometown there were many young girls who had no education and no hope. Her heart was moved. She also became distressed by their ignorance and upset at the parents who had not educated them.
Angela's charming nature and natural leadership qualities made this a successful endeavor. She was so successful she accepted an invitation from the neighboring town, Brescia, to establish a similar school there.
Angela was inspired by the Holy Spirit to dedicate herself to the Lord and to give her life in service to the Church to help everyone grow closer to the Lord. Still filled with grief, she prayed for God to reveal the condition of her deceased sister's soul. In a vision, she learned her sister was in Heaven with the company of saints. She became increasingly more devout and joined the Third Order of St. Francis where she also pledged to remain a consecrated virgin, forsaking marriage to one man to be married to the Lord and His Church.
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Angela became convinced there was great need for a better way of teaching these young girls. So, she opened her own home to them and began to teach them herself. She devotedly taught them the Catholic Christian faith. By her example and instruction, she taught them to how to pray and participate in the sacramental life of the Church. She evangelized and catechized these young girls, opening them up to the life of grace.
In 1506, while praying in the fields of Brudazzo, Angela had a vision in which she was told that she would found a society of virgins at Brescia. The citizens of Brescia came to regard her as a prophet and a saint.
Another vision from the Lord revealed to Angela that she was to found an institution with other consecrated virgins to further devote their lives toward the religious training of young girls. These women had little money and no power, but were bound together by their dedication to education and commitment to Jesus Christ and service to His Church.
She later had another vision that revealed to her that she was to found an association of virgins who were to devote their lives to the religious training of young girls.
As a young woman, with her heart centered on Christ, Angela joined the Third Order of St. Francis and embraced austerity. In a visionary experience, she felt called to found a “company” of women.
Living in their own homes, the girls met for prayer and classes where Angela reminded them, "Reflect that in reality you have a greater need to serve [the poor] than they have of your service."
Angela's goal was to elevate family life through Christian education for women ? the future wives and mothers. The community she founded was different than many of the religious orders of women which existed in her day. She believed it was important to teach the girls in their own homes with their own families. One of her favorite sayings was, "Disorder in society is the result of disorder in the family."
In 1524, she eagerly took on the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land. During the journey, she was suddenly struck with blindness while on the island of Crete. This didn't stop her though; she continued the journey with as much enthusiasm as she would have if she had her vision. She made the entire pilgrimage and visited the sacred shrines. On the journey back home, her sight was miraculously restored while she was praying before a crucifix in the same place where she had become blind. The Lord showed Angela through this experience that she must never shut her eyes to the needs she saw around her ? to not shut her heart to God's call.
During the Jubilee year in 1525, Angela traveled to Rome to gain the special grace of the plenary indulgence offered to all Christian pilgrims. Pope Clement VII had heard of Angela and her great holiness. He noted her wonderful success as a religious teacher for young girls and invited her to stay in Rome. Angela was humble, disliked publicity and kindly declined the generous offer.
On November 25, 1535, Angela gathered together 12 young virgins and laid down the foundation for the Order of the Ursulines at a small house near the Church of St. Afra in Bresica with Angela's Company of Saint Ursula, under the patronage of St. Ursula.
This was the first group of consecrated women to work outside of a formal cloister or convent in her day and became the first teaching order of women in the Catholic Church. The community existed as what is called a "secular institute" until years after Angela's death.
On November 25, 1535, at Brescia, Angela and 28 companions consecrated themselves to God by a vow of virginity, and the Company of St. Ursula was born.
Angela was invited to become a live-in companion for a widow in the nearby town of Brescia. There she became the spiritual advisor of a group of men and women with ideals of spiritual renewal and service to those in need. While on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1524, Angela was struck with blindness. She proceeded to visit the sacred shrines, seeing them with her spirit. On the way back while praying before a crucifix, Angela’s sight was restored.
Though the women in the community wore no special religious habit and took no formal vows, Angela wrote a Rule of Life for those who lived and served in the community of women. They did pledge to live a life of consecrated celibacy, poverty and obedience. They lived this Rule of Life within their own homes.
At age 60, Angela and 12 other women began the Company of St. Ursula, named for a patroness of medieval universities and venerated as a leader of women. This constituted a new way of life: single women consecrated to Christ and living in the world rather than in a monastery. With Angela as their “mother and mistress,” Company members did not live in community, wore no special clothing, and made no formal vows.
The Ursulines opened both schools and orphanages and in 1537, Angela was elected "Mother and Mistress" of the group. Her Rule was officially approved by Pope Paul III in 1544 and the Ursulines became a recognized religious community of women with a teaching ministry.
Before her death, Angela reassured her Sisters who were afraid to lose her in death: "I shall continue to be more alive than I was in this life, and I shall see you better and shall love more the good deeds which I shall see you doing continually, and I shall be able to help you more."
St. Angela Merici died on January 27, 1540. Clothed in the habit of a Franciscan tertiary, Angela was buried in the Church of St. Afra in Brescia.
Angela Merici died in Brescia, Italy, in 1540. Clothed in the habit of a Franciscan tertiary, her body was interred in Brescia’s Church of Saint’ Afra. Four years later the Company’s Rule that Angela had composed, prescribing the practices of chastity, poverty and obedience, was approved by the pope.
During her entire journey, she remained blind and saw nothing of the Holy Land. However, she wrote that she "saw these places with the eyes of her soul as if she had seen them with her bodily eyes." After she left the Holy Land, her eyesight suddenly returned.
In the early 1600s, Companies that had expanded into France were re-organized into the religious Order of St. Ursula, to teach girls. Angela’s words continue to inspire the Ursuline nuns’ mission of education, a mission that spread worldwide. The Company of St. Ursula also continued to exist and is federated worldwide today with members in 30 countries. Angela Merici was canonized by Pope Pius VII in 1807.
Angela holds an arrow which is the symbol for St. Ursula's martyrdom. The grapes are symbolic of the eucharistic blood of Christ and also of her family's vineyard. Even more it symbolizes the cluster of women she drew together in such a unique and progressive way.
Angela reminded the young women that attended these schools to, “Reflect that in reality you have a greater need to serve [the poor] than they have of your service.” She was also often known to say, “Disorder in society is the result of disorder in the family.”
My very own sisters, it is necessary that we be vigilant, and so much more so, as the undertaking is of such importance that there could be no greater, in which lie our life and well-being, and in which we are called to a life of such glory that we are spouses of the Son of God, and will become queens in heaven. ~Prologue of the Rule of the Company of Saint Ursula #15–17