Saint Angela Merici, born in 1474 and passing in 1540, achieved the unique feat of establishing not only the Church’s inaugural congregation of teaching women but also what we now recognize as a ‘secular institute’ of religious women.
Angela’s early years saw her embrace the Third Order of St. Francis, presently known as the Secular Franciscan Order. She adopted a life of profound simplicity, aspiring to emulate St. Francis’s philosophy of possessing nothing, forsaking even the comfort of a bed. Struck by the lack of religious education among the impoverished youth, whose families either could not or would not impart religious teachings, Angela set out to make a difference. Her engaging presence, combined with her leadership skills, drew others to join her in offering consistent religious education to the young girls in their vicinity.
Her journey led her to Brescia, fulfilling a vision she once had of founding a religious community there. Her efforts in Brescia did not go unnoticed, and she quickly became the nucleus of a like-minded group.
A pilgrimage to the Holy Land presented itself as a significant chapter in her life. En route, in Crete, Angela was afflicted with sudden blindness. Despite her companions’ concerns, she persisted with the pilgrimage, demonstrating remarkable devotion and fervor at each holy site, as though she had her vision. Miraculously, her sight was restored while praying before a crucifix, precisely at the location where she had lost it.
In her later years, at 57, Angela gathered a group of 12 young women to assist in her catechetical mission. This number expanded to 28 within four years. She established this collective as the Company of St. Ursula, named after the patron saint of medieval universities and renowned as a leader among women. The Ursulines, as they were known, were revolutionary; the members lived at their homes, wore no distinctive habit, and while they didn’t take formal vows, they adhered to principles of virginity, poverty, and obedience as per the initial Rule. Angela’s vision of a women’s teaching congregation was groundbreaking and required time to evolve. Hence, the community functioned as a “secular institute” until some years post Angela’s demise.
Photo credit: Lawrence OP via Flickr
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