Saint of the Day – 27 January – St Angela Merici C.S.U. – (1474-1540 died aged 65) Virgin/Religious/Foundress/Teacher – Patron of sickness, handicapped people, loss of parents
St Angela was a religious teacher who founded the Company of St. Ursula in 1535 in Brescia, Italy in which women dedicated their lives to the service of the Church through the education of girls. From this organization later sprang the monastic Order of Ursulines, whose nuns established places of prayer and learning throughout Europe and, later, worldwide, most notably in North America.
She was born in 1474 at Desenzano del Garda, a small town on the southwestern shore of Lake Garda in Lombardy. She and her older sister, Giana Maria, were left orphans when she was fifteen years old. They went to live with their uncle in the town of Salò. Young Angela was very distressed when her sister suddenly died without receiving the Last Rites of the Church and prayed that her sister’s soul rest in peace. It is said that in a vision she received a response that her sister was in heaven in the company of the saints. She joined the Third Order of St. Francis around that time. People began to notice Angela’s beauty and particularly to admire her hair. As she had promised herself to God, and wanted to avoid the worldly attention, she dyed her hair in soot.
Merici’s uncle died when she was twenty years old and she returned to her home in Desenzano, and lived with her brothers, on her own property, given to her in lieu of the dowry that would otherwise have been hers had she married. She later had another vision that 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. This association was a success and she was invited to start another school in the neighboring city, Brescia.
In 1524, while traveling to the Holy Land, Merici became suddenly blind when she was on the island of Crete. Despite this, she continued her journey to the Holy Land and was ostensibly cured of her blindness on her return, while praying before a crucifix, at the same place where she was struck with blindness a few weeks before. In 1525 she journeyed to Rome in order to gain the indulgences of the Jubilee Year then being celebrated. Pope Clement VII, who had heard of her virtue and success with her school, invited her to remain in Rome. Merici disliked attention, however, and soon returned to Brescia.
On 25 November 1535, Merici gathered with 12 young women who had joined in her work in a small house in Brescia near the Church of St Afra, where together they committed themselves in the founding of the Company of St Ursula, placed under the protection of the patroness of medieval universities. Her goal was to elevate family life through the Christian education of future wives and mothers. Four years later the group had grown to 28. Merici taught her companions to be consecrated to God and dedicated to the service of their neighbour but to remain in the world, teaching the girls of their own neighbourhood, and to practice a religious form of life in their own homes. The members wore no special habit and took no formal religious vows. Merici wrote a Rule of Life for the group, which specified the practice of celibacy, poverty and obedience in their own homes. The Ursulines opened orphanages and schools. On 18 March 1537, she was elected “Mother and Mistress” of the group. The Rule she had written was approved in 1544 by Pope Paul III. Angela gave the Ursulines a military structure, dividing towns into districts governed hierarchically by mature Christian women. This design allowed the community to support members in daily Christian living and protect them from spiritually unhealthy influences.
The rule that Angela wrote for the company required members to remain faithful to the Christian basics. In the following excerpt, she explains the importance of daily vocal and mental prayer:
“Each one of the sisters should be solicitous about prayer, mental as well as vocal, that is a companion to fasting. For Scripture says prayer is good with fasting. As by fasting we mortify the carnal appetites and the senses, so by prayer we beg God for the true grace of spiritual life. Thus, from the great need we have of divine aid, we must pray always with mind and heart, as it is written, “Pray constantly” (1 Thessalonians 5:17 NJB). To all we counsel frequent vocal prayer that prepares the mind by exercising the bodily senses. So each one of you, every day will say with devotion and attention at least the Office of the Blessed Virgin and the seven penitential psalms (Psalm 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143) because in saying the office we are speaking with God.
To afford matter and some method in mental prayer, we exhort each one to raise her mind to God and to exercise herself in it every day. And so in the secret of her heart, let her say: “My Saviour, illumine the darkness of my heart, and grant me grace rather to die than to offend your Divine Majesty any more. Guard, O Lord, my affections and my senses, that they may not stray, nor lead me away from the light of your face, the satisfaction of every afflicted heart.
I ask you, Lord, to receive all my self-will, that by the infection of sin is unable to distinguish good from evil. Receive, O Lord, all my thoughts, words, and deeds, interior and exterior, that I lay at the feet of your Divine Majesty. Although I am utterly unworthy, I beseech you to accept all my being.”
When Merici died in Brescia on 27 January 1540, there were 24 communities of the Company of St. Ursula serving the Church through the region. Over the years the Ursulines have flourished as the oldest and one of the most respected of the church’s teaching orders. Her body was clothed in the habit of a Franciscan tertiary and was interred in the Church of St. Afra.