Pray with Today's Saint

St. Ursula

10/21/2014

What little we know about St. Ursula comes from an ancient church in Cologne, Germany. How an image of this obscure saint ended up in a stained glass window in a Basilica in northwest Indiana is an interesting, winding story.

In the church in Cologne, which is named after St. Ursula, there is a stone with a Latin inscription that dates to the fourth century. It indicates that a senator named Clematius received visions that directed him to rebuild a ruined basilica on that spot in honor of women who had been martyred there. Nothing else is said about the number of women, nor were their names given.

From this, however, we can infer that a group of women were killed for their faith in Cologne, and that they were so well-known that a church was built in their honor early enough for it to have fallen into ruins by the late 300s. Likely one of them was named Ursula, since the church was named for her.

Legend has filled in the gaps in this record. Ursula, the story goes, was daughter of a Christian king in Britain, and promised in marriage to the son of a pagan king. She wanted to remain a virgin, and asked for a three year delay. She took her ladies-in-waiting and traveled to the continent. They ended up in Cologne, where they were captured by the invading Huns and killed for their faith.

When Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World, he named the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean after St. Ursula and her companions. St. Ursula is also the namesake of the Ursuline order of nuns, who founded schools for the education of girls and women. She is patron saint of Catholic education, of students and teachers, and of the University of Paris.

When the Congregation of Holy Cross established Notre Dame, St. Ursula was one of the patrons invoked by the French priests and brothers of that order in intercession for the success of the University.

She is depicted in these stained glass windows from the Basilica. In the top image, she is holding the flag of England, which is decorated with a red cross, in one hand, and the flowering palm of martyrdom in the other. In the lower image, she is rejecting the marriage offer. Her relics rest in the reliquary chapel there.

St. Ursula, patron saint of Catholic education, pray for us!