St. Angela Merici
St. Angela Merici was a lay woman in 15th century Italy who revolutionized the education of women as well as religious life.
She was born in 1474, the younger of two girls. By the time Angela was 15, the sisters were orphaned and sent to live with an uncle. Angela was distraught when her older sister died suddenly without receiving a final anointing. This event sent Angela to prayer—she joined a group of laypeople who lived in the spirituality of St. Francis, and she prayed fervently for the soul of her sister. She eventually received a vision in which she saw her sister celebrating in heaven.
Angela was admired for her beauty, and people found her hair especially pretty. To divert attention from herself, Angela covered her hair in ashes.
When she as 20, her uncle died, and she returned to her family home. She saw a great need for Christian education for girls—at the time women were educated only if they were rich or if they became religious sisters. Angela, herself, had only received an education by her own hard work.
At the time, girls fell through cracks in the educational system because women were not allowed to be teachers. Unmarried women could not do their own work outside of the house, and nuns lived in cloisters and could not leave the convent.
In response, Angela turned her house into a school to teach girls in her city. Other young women joined her there; she formed these teachers into a community dedicated to the education of young women, and their work began to spread. “You have a greater need to serve the poor than they have of your service,” she told her companions.
In 1524, she took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On the way, she stopped in Crete, and was suddenly struck blind. She continued on the pilgrimage, visiting all the sites as though she could see. When she was returning home, she stopped in Crete again, and her sight was restored while she was praying in front of a crucifix. For this reason, she is patron saint of sick people and those who are disabled.
When the pope heard of the good work she was doing, he invited her to move to Rome. Angela saw this opportunity as a temptation to pride, and decided to remain at home with the community she had formed.
In 1534, she chose 12 of the women who shared her work and established a formal religious community, known as the Company of St. Ursuline (now known as the Ursulines, or the Angelines). These sisters dedicated their lives to serving God and others, but were not to remove themselves from the world, as cloistered orders do. The sisters would live celibate lives in their own homes.
When she died in 1540, there were 24 different communities of Ursuline sisters, and today these sisters lead educational institutions throughout the world. They were the first religious sisters to land in the New World when they arrived in Canada in 1639. Her relics rest in the reliquary chapel in the Basilica on campus, and her image is used here with permission from Catholic.org.
St. Angela Merici, teacher of young women and patron saint of those who are disabled, pray for us!