306-242-5566  BOOK A TOUR

125 Cree Cres

Saskatoon, SK S7K-7J1



24 HRS

Staff on site 24hr a day

St Angela Merici, An Inovative Woman 1474-1540

By Sr Magdalen Stengler

We are living in this beautiful St. Angela Merici Residence.  But why did it receive this name?  St. Anglea Merici is the foundress of the Ursuline Sisters who built this home.  Because Angela lived over 500 years ago, it is rather difficult to understand her as a real live woman.  The circumstances of life in Italy and the writers of her time differed vastly from ours.  Often, she was portrayed as a superhuman woman, free of relational difficulties, and able to face every problem with confidence and ease.  With the more recent Ursuline research of the times in which she lived, we find Angela not only a woman of courage, but also a person who struggled with temptations of faith and doubt and a woman who had to stand up publicly for her principles at a time when women were considered as second-class-citizens.  This is the human but daring woman I want to introduce to you – an extraordinary woman who, nearly 600 years ago, pioneered what women are called to be.

St Angela Merici, a peasant Italian girl from the 1500’s, had a marvelous understand of women and of her responsibility for them.  The traditional adult female was deprived of educational opportunities and predestined to be a housewife and baby machine under male domination.  Angela was called by God to initiate a refreshing understanding of the role of modern woman.  In a society disadvantaged by lack of educational opportunities she founded a company of women destined to bring woman to her rightful place in society.  As an equal to man, woman was called to use her creative God-given talents to raise the quality of family and community life and to enrich family, church and society.

Angela was born in Desenzano i n northern Italy in 1474.  Together with an older sister and two of three younger brothers, she grew up on a family farm where their parents taught them love, prayer and work in the family and respect for their neighbors.  In the evenings the father gathered his children around him to listen to the lives of the saints.  Angela was especially motivated to become a saint and to help others better their lives.

Unfortunately, their close family circle was broken up by the death of theree significant family members – her parents and sister.  Because some of the orphaned Merici children were too young to remain on the farm, a rich uncle invited Angela and a younger brother to live with his family at Salo on the beautiful lake front of Lake Garda.  Her uncle and aunt intended to prepare Angela for an upper-class marriage but she shocked them whe she shared her desire – to belong to God alone.

At 19 Angela became a Franciscan tertiary, an organization which allowed lay people to devote themselves to the service of the church (at a time when that service was reserved solely for the clergy).  This was all the more necessary because she lived during the confusing time fo the Reformation.  It was also the time when the state of the church was unhealthy.  Parish priests were often poorly educated and away from their parishes for extended periods.

Because of Angela’s refusal to marry, she, together with her uncle, aunt, finally came to an agreement that she return to the farm at Desenzano.  Instead of the dowry she would have received at marriage, she received a vineyard as her own property, an unusual occurrence for a Renaissance woman.

The people at Desenzano found Angela a changed woman.  At first they did not know what to make of Angela who at 20 was still unmarried.  Her prayer, fasting, and penances remained a secret between hersel and God but her many works of charity were part of her daily life.  She was also available to advise, comfort and encourage anyone in need.  Young people asked her to teach them how to pray and some neighbors came to discuss family problems.  Gradually the local people began to accept her and matchmaking faded away.

Angela’s vision by Calcinardi
Angela’s vision by Calcinardi

Angela’s life took an unexpected turn at the age of 40.  After bringing lunch to the harvesters one autumn day, she withdrew to pray in the countryside.  A dazzling light suddenly broke through the dark clouds and a mysterious ladder reaching from heaven to earth appeared.  On it were pairs of singing virgins alternating with pairs of angels.  As the filed past, Angela’s dead sister stepped forward with the message that before she dies God wanted her to found in Brescia a Company of virgins like these.  This message left Angela with two unsettling questions: how was she to get to Brescia and how would she, a country girl, found a Company?  This fear of the unknown led to hours in praying, soul searching, consulting, reading the signs of the times and agonizing before she was ready to take action.

At this time, it happened that Caterina Patengola, a Franciscan tertiary living in Brescia, was mourning the loss of three of her children in four years so Angela’s Franciscan superiors asked her to be of spiritual support to her.  With her personal experience of family deaths, Angela was happy to go to Brescia.  Also, Brescia was the place where God wanted her to found a Company of virgins.

Through Caterina and her friends Angela met significant active men and women in Brescia.  Because of its geographical location, the city had become a sort of a permanent war zone and was demoralized by the wars.  The most recent combat was between the Pope and France (whose ruthless soldiers marched through Brescia on their way to and from Rome).  Many mercenaries under the pay of the French government killed thousands of civilians and brought syphilis to the city.  The French army plundered buildings and wiped out the financial resources of a once prosperous city.  Angela supported the many Brescian men and women who brought relief to the suffering.  For instance, women gathered orphaned girls in their homes while notable men, who served the poor in secret, helped the many street kids and those who wished to turn away from prostitution.

After Caterina had achieved some measure of interior peace Angela accepted the invitation to live in the house of a rich merchant, Antonio Romano.  Here Angela noticed that, although he treated his own servants well, life for poor girls who worked as servants in the neighborhood was hard.  Many of the girls had had little love in their lives.  Some were orphans while others had come to the city for employment. Many had grown up in homes where they did not learn to be useful.  Angela’s male friends represented these girls in court to get just wages or dowry so they could marry.

A woman of her times, Angela had an ardent devotion to the passion of Jesus and, in 1524 she undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to pray at the places where Jesus had suffered and died.  She was accompanied by Antonio and a cousin.  It was a long and demanding journey from Brescia to the port of Venice by horseback and then to Jerusalem in a crowded ship which pitched and rocked in violent storms.  When the ship docked in modern Crete Angela became blind.  Despite the pleas of her friend that she remains in port until the ship returned from Jerusalem, Angela continued on the journey.  Later she claimed she saw the places she visited with the eyes of the mind as clearly as she would have seen them with her bodily eyes.  Another marvelous thing happened on the return trip.  When the ship docked at Crete again, Angela miraculously recovered her vision.  The travelers were ecstatic and regarded Angela as a saint.  This news traveled quickly.  Officials in Venice and later the Pope in Rome invited Angela to conduct the charities in their cities but Angela refused.  The reason? God has asked her to found a Company of virgins in Brescia.

Back home in Brescia again, Angela noticed anew how little education the girls had and wondered who would teach them.  Times were much different then.  Women weren’t allowed to be teachers and unmarried women were not supposed to go out by themselves – even to serve others.  Nuns were the best educated women but they weren’t allowed to leave thir cloisters.  There were no teaching orders of sister like we have today.

In the meantime, Brescian girls grew up without education in religion or anything else.  Since these girls weren’t being helped by the old ways Angela designed a new way of education.  Forty years after receiving her vision to found a Company of virgins, Angela brought together a group of unmarried women, fellow Franciscan tertiaries and other friends, who went out into the streets to gather the girls and taught them.  These women had little money and no power, but were bound together by their dedication to education and commitment to Christ.  Living in their own homes, they frequently met with Angela for prayer and classes where she reminded them, “Reflect that in reality you have a greater need to serve [the poor] than they have of your service.”

After further prayer, discussion and discernment, Angela and her prospective members met to organize as a Company.  They decided to live their lives of consecration in their homes rather than in monasteries.  This would place them in ideal situatuon to renew family life by nurturing parents in their faith and providing them, especially the mothers, with child-rearing skills.  If time and circumstances allowed, the sisters could also help to care for needs in the parish community.  To help the virgins understand their new lifestyle, Angela later dictaed a Rule to her secretary on how her members were to live.

Angela was a genius at organization.  In her Primitive Rule she clarified her plan to restore the family and the supremacy of Christianity through the education of girls.  The final chapter outlined the government of the Company.  Brescia was divided into four districts, each cared for by a three-member team:

  • Four wealthy widows to assure that the Company was accepted socially at a time when lower class women had no place in society.
  • Four mature and experienced men who were responsible for the business and temporal matters of the women such as receiving their wages.
  • A member of the Company as district leader, responsible for the education and formation of the maidens in her area.
  • The mother general was responsible for the entire Company.

The Company of St. Ursula

St Ursula - Image Credit: Guido Reni, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
St Ursula – Image Credit: Guido Reni, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Angela Merici officially founded the Company of St Ursula on November 25, 1535 when her followers of 28 young women gathered with her to formalize their commitment to Christ.  Angela chose St. Ursula as patroness of her Company.  This popular 4th century saint and leader of women and young people had consecrated her life to God while remaining in the world. In addition, St. Ursula was a well known patron saint of learning in Europe where many well known universities were named after her.  A martyr of the early church, Ursula was a fitting model for maidens in the 16th century who were beginning an altogether new way of life in the Catholic Church.  The following year she laid down the rules of the Ursuline Order, clarifying her plan to restore the family and the supremacy of Christianity through the education of girls.

Angela Merici devoted her life to educating women at a time when girls were not considered worthy of education.  She was fond of saying “disorder in society is the result of disorder in the family”.  She believed that educating girls in a family setting would improve society and strengthen Christianity.

Although her Company of Saint Ursula was never a religious order in Angela’s lifetime, the Company was the first group of women religious to work outside the cloister and the first teaching order of women.  The Company was so successful in its service of education that Angela was asked to extend her innovative approach of education to other cities.  Not having enough members to send to these places, Angela sent her Rule and asked those cities to adapt it to the needs of their particular situation.

Angela wanted to help others no matter what the cost but it took many years of frustration before Angela’s radical ideas of education for all and for unmarried women in service were accepted.  But she reminded her daughters how to accomplish change: “Beware of trying to accomplish anything by force, for God has given every single person free will and desires to constrain none; He merely shows them the way, invites them and counsels them”.

During her final illness St Angela Merici reassured her sisters who were afraid to lose her in death: “I shall continue to be more alive than I was in this life, and I shall see you better and love more the good deeds which I shall see you doing continually, and I will be able to help you more”.

Sixty years a lay woman, actively serving church and country, – five years a sister serving the Church through her Company!  This was Angela’s life span.  Yet the seed that she planted has far reaching results.  Her spirit lives on in the Ursuline Sisters and women.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

On Key

Related Posts

Yes we are Roughriders fans!!!

We are ready for the game tonight Saskatchewan Roughriders! Our little game day corner will stay up for the full season! GO RIDERS!!! Posted by

Thank you Sandra and Kelvin!

A huge THANK YOU! to Sandra and Kelvin Menzies for planting our garden for us! We truly appreciate your help. ❤️ Posted by St. Angela