Saint of the Day – 27 January – St Angela Merici C.S.U. (1474-1540) – Virgin, Founder, Religious sister, Teacher, Writer – born on 21 March 1474 at Desenzano, Lake Garda, Italy – 24 January 1540 at Brescia, Italy. Her body is interred in the church of Saint Afra, Brescia, Italy and is incorrupt. Patronages – against bodily ills, illness, sickness, the death of parents, disabled, handicapped or physically challenged people, sick people. Attributes – cloak, ladder, tall ladder with young women climbing it. St Angela founded the Company of St Ursula in 1535 in Brescia, in which women dedicated their lives to the service of the Church through the education of girls. From this organisation later sprang the monastic Order of Ursulines, whose nuns established places of prayer and learning throughout Europe and, later, worldwide, most notably in the new world.
Angela Merici was born in Northern Italy and lived on Lake Garda with her parents and sister, her closest companions. Angela diligently worked on her father’s farm and was also encouraged by her family to develop habits of prayer and fasting — which she continued to practice her whole life.
After the untimely death of her entire family, Angela went to stay with her uncle in a neighbouring town. Angela, obviously quite distraught over this loss, prayed day and night to God for some sign that her family was in heaven. One mid-day during harvest Angela was alone in the fields when she experienced a life-changing vision: the heaven’s opened and angels and young women came toward her singing a melody, surrounded by light. One of the young girl’s was Angela’s sister. From this experience, Angela knew it was her purpose to establish a community of religious and dedicated young women — thus the foundation of the Sisters of Ursuline Order was laid.
Angela spent her early life helping others as a member of the Third Order of Saint Francis. She led a simple life, with only a few hours of sleep a night — much of her waking hours were spent praying. When she was 40 years old she was asked by the Order to travel to the aid of Caterina Patengola, who had just lost her husband and two sons. On her way to Brescia, Angela came to meet up with a religious reform movement, Divino Amore, that catered to the needs of the time.
They established infirmaries for those suffering from syphilis, cared for widows and their families and founded an orphanage and a shelter for former prostitutes. Here, Angela encountered people and experiences that proved to be especially significant in her later life. In only a few short years, a group of men and women gathered around Angela as their spiritual centre.
By 1532, Angela has assembled a small group of women who were her followers and together they embarked on the formation of Angela’s community. By 1536, Angela had won approval from the Diocese for the first Rule written by a woman for a community of women.
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. 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. Her body was later found to be incorrupt. Merici was beatified in Rome on 30 April 1768, by Pope Clement XIII. She was later canonised on 24 May 1807 by Pope Pius VII.