Angela Merici lived in a time of war, civil strife, violence; a time of great progress in science, travel, the arts, agriculture; a time of great holiness and of great corruption; a time of church reform and of church oppression and scandal. Just living in the late 15th and early 16th centuries was a challenge.
Angela was born in Desenzano, Italy, sometime between 1470-1475 and died in 1540. She was a Lombard by birth and world traveler by choice. While most of her travels were confined to Italy, she made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land when she was in her 50s- quite a feat for a woman of her times and of her age.
In her early childhood, she was a daughter, sister, friend, farm manager, Catholic, Secular Franciscan. Sometime in her teens she had an experience that proved to be life shaping; it convinced her of God's love for her. She longed to serve God in the real world and in real and practical ways.
After years of prayer, various kinds of service to the poor and needy, caring for young and old, she gathered a group of her women friends - though she included several men - and founded the Company of Ursula. This company presented a way of life for virginal women - although she included widows -which were neither cloistered nor monastic. Her followers lived in their homes and went about their accustomed duties, paying attention to the way they served and the love that motivated them. They met bi-monthly to share and to learn how God was working in their lives.
Angela's reputation for holiness grew. People of all ranks came to her for counsel, comfort and reconciliation. Today she would have many titles - spiritual director, youth minister, director of charities, teacher, social worker, nurse. But in her day she was simply "Madre Angela," beloved friend of all. Her pilgrimages to the Holy Land, to Rome for a Holy Year, to local shrines and places of devotion introduced her to many kinds of people. She seemed to have loved them all. No one knew fear in her presence.
The miracles she worked were those of the heart. Families were reunited by her influence, mighty rulers were softened by her words, churchmen were led by her wisdom and sinners were changed by her love. A comment made by a young man who visited her on her deathbed summed up her achievements: "She spoke to me of the Christian life."
Angela is often named as the foundress of the Ursuline Sisters. She did much more than that. Her gift of loving God in her world and serving God's people in whatever needs they had, has lived on in her followers of many kinds: Ursuline sisters and nuns, groups of women in what is called "Secular Institutes" and in "Pious Unions." Her family extends all over the world, literally. Her followers are in all of Europe, even withstanding years behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe; her family is in Africa, in India, Japan, China, Indonesia, and Australia.
In the Americas she is well known - one of her daughters having been the first religious in the northern continent and another the first religious in what is the United States. South America, too, knows her well. Today many women and men are associated with various traditional religious Ursulines. Lay women and men also have found appealing her way of living holy lives within their ordinary occupations. These people are associated with a particular Ursuline group.
Ursuline Sisters are probably the best-known members of Angela's family. These women are called Ursulines rather than Angelines because Angela named her original followers the Company of St. Ursula, taking this 8th century legendary woman as her patron. Ursula, according to legend, took 10,000 virgins on pilgrimage to Rome to consult with the pope. By Angela's day, Ursula was patroness of youth and therefore a worthy inspiration to Angela's daughters.
The Ursuline Sisters of Louisville, Kentucky, came from Italy by way of France in the 17th century and then to Straubing, Germany, in 1690. In 1858, three Ursuline sisters came to Louisville at the request of a Franciscan priest who needed German teachers for his parochial school. We now serve in nine states as well as Peru, South America, keeping alive Angela's vision and good works.