Saint Angela Merici

When Angela Merici was born in 1474, northern Italy was in a state of political, social, religious and moral upheaval.  Frequent wars, plagues, moral laxity and ecclesiastical corruption produced a climate ripe for massive change. No one would have guessed that this farmer’s daughter would play a key role in the reforms to come. Little is known of Anqela’s childhood in Desenzano. Italy. She grew up in a household of modest means and strong faith.  As a young child, having heard her father read the lives of Saints and holy Virgins, she herself was drawn to a contemplative way of life.

Her home was soon disrupted by the premature deaths of her parents and sister, and Angela went to live with her uncle in Salo.  The pivotal event of her spiritual life occurred sometime in her adolescence. One day during the harvest, Angela and her companions were out in the fields. At mealtime, Angela withdrew from her companions and went off alone to pray. In ecstasy, she experienced a vision of a staircase extending from heaven to earth. Angels and virgins were advancing on the staircase, two-by-two, singing a beautiful song which Angela would still remember years later. One of the virgins, her deceased sister, told Angela that God wished her to found a company of consecrated virgins. This vision would not be fulfilled for over forty years.

At some point, Angela joined the Third Order of St. Francis. She wore the habit of the Tertiaries throughout her life and from the Friars Minor received her spiritual formation. In 1516, her Franciscan superiors asked her to go to Brescia to help a fellow tertiary in need. For the remainder of her life she lived in Brescia, assisting others by her prayers and by her works of charity. Shortly after 1530, Angela began gathering together young women seeking to live the life of consecrated virginity in a new way: they lived with their families, wore no distinctive habit nor took any public vows. , it is clear from Angela’s Rule that they were to be ”true and chaste brides of the Son of God.” Living an exemplary Christian life, the virgins were to witness and minister in their homes and  communities, not behind cloister walls.

Angela saw in her Company a, “deliberate return to the ideal of virginity in the Early Church” (Ledochowska, 1:169). She, therefore, placed it under the patronage of St. Ursula, Virgin-Martyr of the early Church, and a popular saint of the Middle Ages. On Nov. 25, 1535, twenty-eight women met in the oratory of Elizabeth Prato’s home: “They assisted at Mass together, then, in turn, each signed her name in the Book of the Company, a commitment which was equivalent to a solemn promise of fidelity; with the minimum of ceremonial the first Ursulines gave themselves to God . . . (Ibid., 1:106). The Company grew rapidly; at Angela’s death in 1540, there were 150 members. From Brescia, it spread quickly throughout Italy, to France and Germany, and around the world.

[Karen Klaffenbach, OSU]