“I shall always be in your midst, lending aid to your prayers.” – Angela Merici
Born into a farming family between 1470 and 1475, Angela Merici learned the meaning of hard work early in life. While she received little formal education, she developed habits of prayer that would last throughout her life. As a teenager, Angela lost both her parents and a sister to whom she was very close. Devastated by the loss, she asked God for some sign that her sister was all right. One day, while working in the fields, Angela had a vision of angels and young girls approaching, one of whom she recognized as her sister. Greatly comforted by the vision, over time Angela interpreted it to mean that God wanted to found a company dedicated to young women.
While societal opinion in Angela’s time held that women were weak and unable to withstand the moral temptations of society without the protection of a husband or the walls of a cloister, she knew that women could rely on their own strength and independence to work and live among the people. In 1535, with 28 of her companions gathered around her, Angela founded her Company under the patronage of St. Ursula, considered a role model for young women.
The Company of St. Ursula differed greatly from other religious communities of the time. Rather than cutting themselves off from society, St. Angela’s followers dedicated themselves to working among the people, with a special emphasis on empowering women. Instead of living in cloister, the first Ursulines continued to live with their families, gathering regularly as a community for prayer. While the early Ursulines did practice the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Angela’s spirituality and style of leadership afforded the Sisters much greater freedom in their spiritual lives and ministry than was the norm. Her writings — the Rule, Counsels and Legacy — provided guidance for her followers while fostering the development of their individual gifts and relationships with God.
Although the people of Angela’s time already thought of her as a saint, and actually referred to her as such after her death, she wasn’t canonized until 1807 due to the complexity of the process. It is because of the dedication of one Ursuline — Mother Maria Luisa Schiantarelli — that all of the evidence and details were organized and the canonization occurred. Thanks to her efforts, Pope Pius VI proclaimed Angela’s Decree of Canonization in 1790. The start of the French Revolution and invasion of Napoleon’s armies in Europe, coupled with material and financial losses suffered by the Ursuline community in Rome, delayed the ceremony. Meanwhile, Mother Luisa kept working for Angela’s cause, even in failing health. She passed away in 1802, but would witness the Ursuline foundress’ canonization from heaven five years later, as the then cloistered members of the congregation were authorized to attend the ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica.
St. Angela’s feast day is celebrated on Jan. 27 each year.