FOUNDATION DAY - 25TH NOVEMBER 1535
The radical nature of what Angela Merici was doing in founding the Company of St Ursula in 1535, could have been the reason that it seemed to take her over forty years to do so.
As an adolescent woman, her biographers attest to two interventions of God. The first at Machetto in fields near her family home, Le Grezze, and the second, a little later, near Salò when she was living with her mother’s family. It seems she had some understanding of gathering a group of virgins but discerning what needed to be done to make this a reality was a slow and gradual process.
This process required of Angela an acute attentiveness to the action of God in her life and the society in which she lived. With a background of war between city states and with France, it was a difficult time in Italy and especially for women.
Angela, known as a woman of wisdom and holiness in Brescia, came in contact with young women who did not want to be forced into protective, arranged marriages and for whom the cloister, the other alternative, was impossible because of lack of a dowry or lack of desire. For Angela, it was a matter of finding an alternative to religious life which would keep the meaning of complete consecration outside the monastery and provide protection and security for the members.
She responded to the women who sought leadership from her by gathering with them regularly in a small chapel in which images of the early Christian women martyrs were offered to them for contemplation and imitation. Faustinus, Jovita, Afra, Paula, Eustochium and Ursula surrounding the crucified Christ were to be their strength and guides as they prepared to have Him as ‘their one and only treasure.’
So, on 25th November 1535 Angela with twenty-eight women simply signed their names in the book of the Company. This, the feast of St Catherine of Alexandria, was carefully chosen as Catherine, the Spouse of Christ, was to be the inspiration for the lives of Angela’s Company. She placed her daughters under the patronage of St Ursula, the strong virgin martyr leading her company to give all, to Christ.
During the preparatory years of spiritual formation of the women, Angela wrote a Rule. This document reinforces the radical nature of Angela’s vision and contains a deep experiential wisdom of the ways of human nature and the ways of God. She wrote two other documents, the Counsels for the formators of the young women and the Legacies for the Widows/ Lady Governors who were to safeguard and protect the members of the Company. Her long years of attentiveness and reflection were distilled in these writings and are a source of inspiration and life to her followers.
Angela was doing a new thing when she founded the Company 482 years ago. Through the years, Ursulines have changed and developed in different ways and today in our rapidly changing world we are constantly challenged to meet the needs of our times. However, the pathway of our discernment is the same as Angela walked, confident, open attentiveness to God and our world.Image: St Angela - Romanino