St. Angela Merici: Advocate for women’s education
This is the third in a series of women in Church history.
To say that St. Angela Merici (1474-1540) was ahead of her time would be an understatement. The attributes of reformer, visionary and risk-taker do not do her justice. Canonized in 1807, she revolutionized the role of women both in the Church and in society, specifically regarding education. In the 16th century, most women had two choices: either marriage or life in a convent. Angela, divinely inspired, established an alternative.
Born near the town of Desenzano, Italy, Angela lived with her father, mother and siblings in a farming family. They recognized God’s presence in every part of their lives, and the parents educated their children in the message of Jesus Christ. Nearly every night, the father read from a book about the saints, emphasizing the virtues of those holy men and women. Even as a young person it was apparent that Angela was devoted to Our Lord, as she spent much time in prayer, fasting and contemplation. Her pious demeanor became apparent to all who knew her. She consecrated herself to Jesus Christ, to be his virgin bride, and she remained so throughout her life.
Tragedy in early life
Tragedy struck Angela early in life. In 1489, her father died, and in less than a year her elder sister also died. Grief-stricken, Angela turned all her attention and affection toward her mother. The next year she had a heavenly vision that her beloved sister was among the angels and in the presence of the Blessed Mother.
In the vision, her sister told her, “Angela, only persevere in the path you are following, and you shall have a share with us in the glory you behold,” wrote Bernard O’Reilly in “St. Angela Merici and the Ursulines.” Angela was humbled and inspired by the vision, knowing her sister was in the hands of Mary.
Unfortunately, during the year 1491, her mother died; Angela and her brother were orphans and went to live with their uncle. All this happened before she was 18 years old.
Around 1495, with a new-found friend, Angela began to care for and attend to the poor and the sick of Desenzano. The two girls were distressed at the lack of religious education they found among young women, and they began to teach the Gospel while performing works of mercy. They became well known and beloved among the citizens. Things went well until Angela’s friend died, and once again grief filled Angela’s life. Given all these tragedies, many people would have turned away from God. Angela drew nearer to him.
Vision of her vocation
Soon after the death of her friend, Angela experienced another vision. O’Reilly writes: “All at once she was dazzled by a flood of light, the heavens were opened above her, and from the bright portals on high a luminous ladder descended, resting on the earth. Down the steps came trooping a multitude of holy maidens clothed in flowing vestments and bearing, each, a royal crown. … Angela, transported beyond herself by the sight of this heavenly multitude … was suddenly thrilled by the appearance of the dear companion so lately taken from her. ‘Angela,’ the well-known voice said, ‘know thou that Our Lord hath sent thee this vision, to inform thee that before thy death thou shalt found in Brescia a society like this: such is his injunction to thee.’ And the shining procession reascended into heaven.” Following the vision, Angela knew the vocation to which God was calling her.
During the next 20-plus years she continued working and educating women in Desenzano and in Brescia, Italy. She joined as a Third Order Franciscan and eagerly took on their rules and lived an austere life. She enlisted other women to help take care of the sick and the poor, and to educate girls, but did not establish any kind of community, largely because of the unstable political situation in northern Italy.
|Who is St. Ursula?|
Ursula, the patron saint of the Ursulines, is a legendary woman who chose not to marry a pagan prince and, to get away, went on a long river voyage. She took 10 ladies in waiting, who were accompanied by thousands of virgins. They were all murdered by pagan Huns in Germany when Ursula rejected the advances of their chieftain. Angela associated the legend of Ursula with the vision she had about the maidens descending from heaven.
The early 16th century was the time of the Protestant Revolution, a time of unrest and confusion in the Church. This was also the era of the Renaissance, when culture and science were blooming and, at the same time, of growing moral decay among the people, including the clergy. Catholics had to rally together, defend Catholicism, urge reform among the clergy and find ways to bring peace while keeping God at the center of the universe. Angela Merici was his instrument to help revive and preserve the Faith.
Angela joined a Holy Land pilgrimage in 1524, during which she suddenly and mysteriously was struck blind. Her companions wanted to turn back, but the saint refused. She said her sins were the cause of the blindness, and she would carry on. She visited the sites of the Holy Land, seeing with her heart rather than her eyes the places of Jesus’ passion and where he evangelized.
On the return trip home, her sight was miraculously restored. This miracle can be attributed to Angela’s total faith and holiness. The Holy Spirit may have been prompting her to no longer delay in forming the group described in the vision. Later in life, she reportedly encouraged those in the community to not delay: “Do something. Get moving. Be confident. Risk new things. Stick with it. Get on your knees. Then be ready for big surprises.”
She put this philosophy into practice, settling in the city of Brescia, where her sanctity was well known and where she encouraged others to work with her in helping the poor and in educating young women. In the eyes of many, she was already a saint.
Company of Ursula
In 1535, at age 61, Angela organized a group of women to educate the girls and women of Brescia. She called her group the Company of Ursula. They did not join a convent, took no vows, wore no habit, lived at home and, focusing on girls and mothers, went out to teach the Gospel and the virtues of Christianity in neighborhoods and homes. Betrothed to Christ, they lived by the qualities of chastity, poverty and obedience. Angela was reshaping the role of women forever.
This company of teachers was similar to the apostles Jesus sent out to spread the Good News (cf. Mt 10:5-14). In the case of the Company of Ursula, their primary attention was on women.
Certainly the old adage, “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” fits the intent of this small group of women. Angela was not interested in ruling the world, but on instructing girls in the ways of holiness and the works and teachings of Jesus. She recognized how such teachings would not only influence the individual girl, but their immediate family, the community and future generations. Her company was instructed to be sensitive to the fact that they were filling in for parents. A Christlike attitude was essential, and they were not to present themselves as an authoritative figure.
At first there were 12 members in Angela’s company, then 28, and within five years there were 150. This was a revolutionary concept that would spread throughout Europe. Women of the 16th century didn’t go to school, were considered unworthy of an education, and the idea of a group of women teachers outside the convent was equally revolutionary. Angela’s Company of Ursula was the first secular institute and the first noncloistered teaching community.
Angela died in 1540, and from her divinely inspired life of heroic virtue came a new existence for women both then and in future generations. How women lived and how they were perceived changed. From a few devoted sisters that Angela formed nearly 500 years ago grew the Order of Ursulines that are found today in countries throughout the world. The spirit of St. Angela Merici still thrives through them.
D.D. Emmons writes from Pennsylvania.