Saint Angela Merici: Educator of Young Women

Saint Angela Merici: Educator of Young Women

On January 27, the Church celebrates the memory of Saint Angela Merici (1474–1540), famous for her work as an educator of young women.

A Secular Franciscan of the Third Order

Although today Angela is honored as the foundress of the Ursuline nuns, she identified as a Franciscan. Angela was a native of the small town of Desanzano on the shore of Lake Garda in Lombardy, Italy. Orphaned at an early age, she was raised by relatives. As a young woman, she determined to follow Christ through the service of others, committing herself to a celibate life to do so, and found a spiritual home as a Secular Franciscan in the “Third Order.”

Foundress of Ursuline nuns

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, when she was in her early 60s, twelve young women banded together with her, calling themselves the “Company of St. Ursula,” after the medieval patron saint of education.

St Angela Merici church Brescia Italy 700pxlsThe church of St. Angela, Brescia, Italy

Living the Gospel life

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. 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.

Buried as Franciscan tertiary

Angela was buried as she had 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.

St Angela Merici enshrined church Brescia Italy 700pxlsThe body of Saint Angela Merici, enshrined in church, Brescia, Italy

Obeying divine inspirations

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!

Wisdom of Saint Angela Merici

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.

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Main image: Saint Angela Merici in prayer (anonymous artist, 17th century)

Dominic Monti

Written by : Dominic Monti

Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. A native of nearby Bradford, PA, he was educated at St. Bonaventure (BA); after joining the Order, he attended the Catholic University of America (STB), Union Theological Seminary, NY (STM), and the Divinity School of the University of Chicago (PhD). He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor. He is spiritual assistant to a federation of Poor Clares and the Franciscan Secular Institute, the Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ.