With the foundation of the COMPANY of SAINT URSULA, in Brescia, northern Italy, in 1535, Saint Angela Merici offered to young women of her day an alternative to enclosed religious life. It was a most daring initiative for the time. The members of the Company were consecrated as spouses of the Son of God, but without vows and living in their own homes and continuing their work. The form of government of the Company was lay and feminine, making known to society Angela’s confidence in a woman’s ability to discern, to judge for herself, to govern herself.
After Angela’s death Companies were founded in several cities in Italy, with Rules more or less the same as the Company of Brescia. Gradually the members came to live together and, in answer to a need of the times, they were often asked to teach in the schools of Christian Doctrine, set up after the Council of Trent to combat religious ignorance.
The Companies in Italy continued until early in the 19th century when most were suppressed by Napoleon. The Company of St Ursula in Brescia was refounded in 1866 by Maddalena and Elisabetta Girelli and this was followed by others. Today the Companies are recognised as Secular Institutes. Some are independent. Others belong to a Federation and in the 20th century have spread world wide.
Angela’s charism is like a root with many branches and is expressed also in the form of religious congregations. How did this come about?
In France, towards the end of the 16th century, a Company was begun by a group of young women in Avignon. Other companies sprang up quickly in different places in France. But, by the beginning of the 17th century, following the decrees of the Council of Trent, many communities, for a variety of reasons, chose to become convents with enclosure and vows. The first was Paris in 1612. This was the beginning of the ORDER of SAINT URSULA. The Ursuline way of life had changed, but the sisters continued their ministry of teaching Christian doctrine. The spirit of Angela’s charism of consecration and of ministry lived on but in a different form. This transition to monastic life was a major turning point. It gave rise to a great flowering of spirituality and also led to an incredible expansion.
At the end of the 17th century, in France, there were 300 Ursuline convents. In the 18th century there were 400. It was these convents which sent missionaries to other countries. First throughout Europe. Then, from 1639 onwards, when Marie de l’Incarnation set sail from France for Canada, the Ursuline convents of Europe spread to all continents. In the 18th century to the USA and Latin America and in the 19th century to Africa, Asia and Australia. This missionary zeal stemmed from a desire to make Christ known, but was also a consequence, at times, of persecution which forced sisters to leave Europe, and, at other times, the call of the local church.
At the time of the French Revolution religious houses in France were supressed; religious were imprisoned, many were guillotined, or went into hiding. When, in the 19th century, it was possible to re-establish many of the convents, the world was changed. It was a period when new religious orders were being founded for apostolic work to meet the needs of the times: nursing, teaching, social work. In 1900, Pope Leo XIII invited Ursuline convents around the world to come together in a union. 62 houses voted to join the Union. After 300 years of autonomy, the Roman Union gave a united, international expression to Angela’s charism. This was the second major turning point in the history of the Ursulines.
Throughout the 20th and into 21st century, more houses joined the Roman Union or formed other Unions. Some houses remained independent. But for all, there has been a growing sense of the importance of an international witness to religious life, of the necessity to continue to respond to the signs of the times in an ever changing world and a growing desire to strengthen the bonds between all the daughters of Angela.