On January 27th, the Church celebrates the memory of St. Angela Merici (1474-1540), a native of the small town of Desanzano on the shore of Lake Garda in Lombardy. Although today she is honored as the foundress of the Ursuline nuns, her vision began as a Franciscan. Orphaned at an early age, she was raised by relatives. As a young woman, she was determined to follow Christ through the service of others, committing herself to a celibate life to do so, and joined the Franciscan “Third Order.”
Convinced of the need for better education for young women and girls, she began teaching them in her own home. She was shortly invited to the city of Brescia to begin a similar school. She also began organizing support groups for unmarried women. Eventually, on November 25, 1535, 12 other women banded together with her, calling themselves the “Company of St. Ursula,” after the medieval patron saint of education.
Angela wanted her young community to live the Gospel life without any distinguishing religious habit, living a celibate life in their own homes, although meeting regularly for spiritual conferences and prayer. Her way of life anticipated modern secular institutes and covenant communities. By the time of Angela’s death in Brescia on this day in 1540, groups of the Company of St. Ursula had spread to 24 cities.
Angela was buried as she lived, as a Franciscan tertiary. It was only in the decades after her death that her company was organized as a formal religious order, when after the Council of Trent, church leaders became increasingly skeptical of a group of consecrated women living autonomously.
In the small rule she had written, Angela instructed her companions to obey “divine inspirations that you may recognize as coming from the Holy Spirit” – a truly liberating directive! “May the strength and support of the Holy Spirit be with all of you, that you may persevere steadfastly and faithfully in the work you have undertaken.”