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St Angela Merici
Foundress of the
Ursuline Order
in 1535


If you look very carefully at the pleats of the dress Angela is wearing in the accompanying picture (below left) you will be able to discern a number of pithy exhortations that she gave her followers. Unknowingly to her perhaps, they also shed light on the kind of person she was herself, on the aims and challenges she accepted in her life's journey. They are just as applicable to those who follow her today.


Angela was already a teenager when she realised that she wanted to do something worthwhile with her life. She had recently and suddenly lost both parents and a much loved sister and had to go and live with relatives near Lake Garda in north¬east Italy. She was well looked after, but she found herself irresistibly drawn to doing more with her life than staying at home, marrying, having children, so she decided, despite opposition from her adopted family, to join the Franciscan Third Order. This would entitle her to wear a brown habit and to have more frequent communion and confession, at a time when lay-people were not allowed to go often.


Once a first independent step has been taken in life's journey, it will usually lead to more challenges, a changed landscape, as Angela would soon discover. Through her Franciscan connections, Angela was asked to go to Brescia in 1516 to help and comfort a wealthy widow in her bereavement. Her mission of comfort revealed not only her natural gifts of counselling but also the ability to mix with the wealthy and the poor, the learned and the uneducated, men and women, old and young. She made many lifelong friends during her stay in Brescia and instinctively she felt that God was calling her to stay in this city.


"Sur Anzola" as Angela was then more generally known because of her brown habit and prayerful, austere life, took another big step when, in 1524, she decided to make the long pilgrimage to the Holy Land, accompanied by a cousin and Brescian friend. This was indeed a big step into the unknown by someone born and bred in the country, with little or no education. Her father had taught her to read, but she never learnt to write. It was also a courageous step to undertake this almost six-month journey. She was already in her 50's - almost old age in her day - and it was not customary for an unmarried woman to travel so far. Added to which, a pilgrim-ship was far from being a comfortable liner, and life aboard would have been hard, very uncomfortable and lacking in privacy. But Angela was prepared to risk all the dangers on land (marauding robber-bands) and sea (pirates) to meet her one desire - to visit and pray at the holy places where Jesus had lived and died.


It is a well-known saying that "man proposes and God disposes", and this was certainly the case for Angela on her pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Before setting out on it, she had been warned about the dangers and risks that lay ahead, but she had placed all her trust in God that he would protect them on their journey. The one thing she had not taken into account was that, when the ship stopped in Crete on the outward journey, she was suddenly struck with a temporary blindness. Thus, when Jerusalem was finally reached, Angela bereft of her sight, had to be guided by hand by her companions to all the places that she had set her heart on seeing. She always used to say later that she was able to see them with the eyes of her soul, just as if she-had actually seen them.


The spirit of a pilgrim, however, had well and truly entered Angela's soul. After her return to Brescia, she almost immediately set off on another pilgrimage to Rome, and then two separate journeys to a remote shrine in Varallo, in north-west Italy, where a series of chapels were being built devoted to the life and death of Jesus. Here she was able to actually see some of the places she had missed in the Holy Land, but perhaps even more importantly she was able "to get down on her knees" and pray for God's help and encouragement to take the next step which she knew, in her heart of hearts, she was being asked to take.


At Varallo, Angela indeed "did cry out with all her heart". From her childhood she had sensed that God was asking something special from her, but she had always put it out of her mind - she was too poor, too uneducated, and too ordinary. But during her years in Brescia, she had met so many women and widows, young and middle-aged, who longed to follow Jesus, to lead a consecrated life serving God and neighbour, but were in no way attracted to a cloistered life in a convent. Could she, would she, take the big step to find an answer to the inner longing of these women?


Angela received her answer: "Act now, and do not delay any longer!" In the two or three years after her return from Varallo, with the help of a friend in Brescia with legal experience, she prepared the kind of Rule for those women who wanted to lead a religious life but did not have either the money or the desire to enter an enclosed monastery. On 25 November, 1535, Angela took the unheard-of step of establishing a small religious group - the Company of Saint Ursula. In the kitchen of her little dwelling place in Brescia, twenty-eight women inscribed their names in a little exercise-book as members of this Company. It was truly a "marvellous thing" as Angela Merici was the first woman in the history of the Church to draw up a Rule of life for women who wanted to lead a religious life outside the cloister. And the "big surprise" is the maturity, the spiritual depth and the modern psychological understanding of human nature of Angela's Rule and her accompanying instructions that have guided her followers over the centuries from the little Company in Brescia to the worldwide Order of St Ursula to be found today on 5 continents in 62 countries. If we use Angela's road-map with its seven signposts, on our life journey, we also may be rewarded with "big surprises" and see "marvellous things".