The Life of Saint Angela

Angela Merici was born in Desenzano, a little town on the shore of Lake Garda in Lombardy, Italy, on March 21, 1470. She and her siblings were raised by working class, devout parents. At age ten, Angela lost both of her parents and she and her sister and brother were taken in by a wealthy uncle who lived in Salo. Tragedy struck again only three years later when Angela lost her beloved elder sister to illness. She was very distraught at this loss which was compounded by the knowledge that her sister died before receiving the last sacraments. Angela's mind was put at rest when she experienced a vision--the first of many--which assured her of her sister's salvation. In gratitude for this peace of mind, Angela consecrated herself to God and asked to be admitted as a Franciscan tertiary.

At the age of 22, upon the death of her uncle, Angela returned to Desenzano. Convinced that the great need of her times was a better instruction of young girls in the rudiments of the Christian religion, she converted her home into a school where at stated intervals she daily gathered all the little girls of Desenzano and taught them the elements of Christianity. It is related that one day, while in an ecstasy, she had a vision in which it was revealed to her that she was to found an association of virgins who were to devote their lives to the religious training of young girls. The school she had established at Desenzano soon bore abundant fruit, and she was invited to the neighboring city, Brescia, to establish a similar school at that place. Angela gladly accepted the invitation.

In 1524, while making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, she became suddenly blind when she was on the island of Crete, but continued her journey to the holy places and was cured on her return while praying before a crucifix at the same place where she was struck with blindness a few weeks before. When, in the jubilee year, 1525, she went to Rome to gain the indulgences, Pope Clement VII, who had heard of her great holiness and her extraordinary success as a religious teacher of young girls, invited her to remain in Rome; but Angela, who shunned publicity, returned to Brescia.

In 1531 Angela had begun the training of some of her select companions in a kind of informal novitiate. Some lived with her; others remained in the homes of their parents. There were twelve in all. By 1535 she had 28 women willing to consecrate themselves to God's service. On November 25, 1535, she placed these women under the protection of Saint Ursula who is the medieval patroness of universities.

The women met together for instruction and prayer, and became the first teaching order of young women. However, it was discerned that they should remain living in their own homes. It was a goal of Angela’s to re-Christianize the family and society. The young women would exercise their apostolate among the members of their own families and social acquaintances. No formal vows were taken but a primitive rule was drawn up by Angela that prescribed the practice of virginity, poverty and obedience. The original Company of St. Ursula was, what we would call today, a secular institute. Only after Angela's death, which was on January 27, 1540, and under the advice of Saint Charles Borromeo, did the Ursulines adopt the canonical designation of religious.

The people of Brescia immediately honored Angela Merici as a Saint. In 1768 she was beatified; in 1807 she was canonized and in 1861 her cult was extended to the universal Church by Pope Pius IX.

From the Life of Saint Angela by Sister Maria Howell, RSM, and the Catholic Encyclopedia.