Today is the feast of St. Angela Merici, an Italian saint whose vision and wisdom are as worthy of emulation in the 21st century as in the 16th. The founder of the Ursuline sisters, actually she didn’t intend to start a religious order. Through her ordinary life in northern Italian towns, she noticed how little education women and girls received, particularly in religious matters, and determined to teach them. She founded a school in her home in Desanzano, and it was so successful that she was invited to nearby Brescia to do the same. Other women were drawn to participate in her work.
Finally, in 1535 at the age of 57 she formed the Company of St. Ursula, selecting an early Christian martyr who was a leader of women companions as their patron. Unlike a religious order, Angela’s group of consecrated women was not cloistered but lived with their families and wore no special habit. They gathered together for prayer and devotion and attended mass in their parishes. And though Angela is known for education, the Company was not founded for any specific work. The members could serve in varied ways depending on their interests and abilities.
Angela’s words from her writings are incredibly quotable and timeless in their insight:
“If according to times and needs you should be obliged to make fresh rules and change certain things, do it with prudence and good advice.”
“You will do more good by sweetness and kindness than by harsh and stern words.”
“Build community wherever you go.”
The idea of independent, unmarried women was quite radical in Angela’s time. She died only five years after founding the Company, and her successors encountered pressures from church and society. But Companies continued to be founded in Italy and France. Some were eventually formed into enclosed religious communities known as the Order of St. Ursula.
A testament to the enduring wisdom of Angela’s vision, the Company of St. Ursula exists today in 23 countries of the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe. It was just established in the United States in 2000. The women keep their own occupations and living arrangements, gathering together for prayers and support. Angela’s words ring true across the centuries, “I shall always be in your midst, lending aid to your prayers.”
Copyright Peg Conway 2011