When I was a child, I had a chance to visit the old academy with my grandparents and Great-aunt Helen. I remember meeting a few of the sisters who were still in residence, working in the preschool - all that remained of the once thriving boarding and day school. Along with the old spring house and the Lourdes grotto, I also got to see the remarkably grand St. Joseph's Chapel in which my grandparents had been married in 1946.
It would be nearly two decades before my experience of the Ursulines grew beyond those childhood impressions. In my years as a religious, I had the opportunity to make a retreat at the motherhouse of the Ursuline Sisters of Mt. Saint Joseph and to work with some of the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville. I appreciate their work and the prophetic stance they've taken in many areas, especially with regard to women's issues and the rights of children. I also recognize that I, personally, owe a debt of gratitude to those sisters serving in Arcadia who, generations ago, formed my grandmother in the Catholic Faith.
Saint Angela Merici, the founder of the Ursulines and whose commemoration is celebrated on January 27, was born in 1470 in the Lombardy region of Italy. A member of the Third Order of Saint Francis, she brought together a group of women who established a sort of "support group" for unmarried girls in their neighborhood. This eventually led to the creation of a school and Angela was invited to do the same work in the city of Brescia. She came to recognize that God was calling her to care for poor girls. Her charitable works became widely known and she had the support of many of Brescia's influential citizens.
Angela recognized that non-aristocratic women, especially those who were unmarried, had practically no options for their lives. Their lack of education and inability to support themselves forced such women to become servants, prostitutes, or beggars. The most recent edition of Butler's Lives of the Saints praises her work, significantly noting that "she was not providing a refuge for women who had failed to find husbands, but asserting the original dignity of all women in a primary relationship to Christ." The young women she brought together formed what would eventually become a new religious community under the patronage of Saint Ursula, a virgin and martyr who was honored as the leader of a group young women who died for their faith in the fourth or fifth century. The "Company of Saint Ursula" was one of the first communities of teaching sisters in the Church and broke with many of the conventions of religious life: the members had no formal enclosure or convents (early members lived with their families) and they had no religious habit.
Less than five years after establishing the "Company," Angela Merici died in Brescia on January 27, 1540. She was canonized in 1807 and has come to be honored as one of the patrons of those with physical disabilities.
Over the past several days I've been reading Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel"), in which Pope Francis wrote:
Jesus [can break] through the dull categories with which we would enclose him and he constantly amazes us by his divine creativity. Whenever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meanings for today's world. Every form of authentic evangelization is always "new." (from paragraph 11)These words seem especially significant as we remember this holy and courageous woman. Saint Angela Merici was one of those graced souls in the Church's history who dared to do something new. Although she had her critics (including those noble families who had once supported her became suspicious of her and feared she'd "steal away" their marriageable daughters), she saw that in order to fulfill her vocation she had to set out on new paths. For this reason, she seems an especially important witness for us today, particularly as we become more aware of how widespread human trafficking and the exploitation of women and children really is.
May Saint Angela Merici continue to inspire her spiritual daughters--and each of us--to be open to God's call and to seek out new ways of serving those who most need love: “Act, move, believe, strive, hope, cry out to Him with all your heart, For without doubt you will see marvelous things, if you direct everything to the praise and glory of his Majesty and the good of souls” (Saint Angela Merici).
A prayer in honor of Saint Angela Merici +
Gracious God, following the example of Angela Merici, we ask that you enlighten, direct, and teach us what we must do for love of you and for your people. Bless us as we walk ahead for whatever you call us this day and everyday. Amen.
(from the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland)