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No. 3160:
Angela Merici

by Andy Boyd

Today, a small seed blossoms. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Our story begins in the year 1535 in the small Italian town of Brescia situated at the foot of the Alps. Angela Merici was growing old, having lived a devout but secular life in service of the Roman Catholic church. Throughout her life she'd shown a special affinity for instructing girls in the rudiments of the faith, opening her home as a school. And at age sixty-one she felt compelled to see that her life's work continued after she was gone.

Saint Angela Merici
Saint Angela Merici   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

On the feast day of the Great Martyr Saint Catherine, Merici gathered twelve women who had been working with her to join in the founding of the Company of Saint Ursula, who came to be known as the Ursulines. Merici's intent was to develop a grass roots organization of women to support and educate girls in matters of faith and family by reaching into and becoming an integral part of the communities they served. In doing so, Merici planted a seed that would blossom in ways she couldn't have imagined.

When Merici died some five years after the formation of the Ursulines, the movement was rapidly expanding throughout the Northern Italian region due to the efforts of the many faithful, secular women devoted to the cause. It was a situation that made some Church leaders uneasy. As a result, many though not all the Ursulines were formed into an enclosed religious order. Tucked away in convents and beholden to the Church hierarchy, the newly formed Ursuline nuns sadly weren't the interactive community members Merici had envisioned. Still, as the Ursulines expanded into France and throughout Europe, focus on the education of girls remained a centerpiece of their activities.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Ursulines counted some fifteen to twenty thousand nuns and three hundred and fifty convents. When the French began colonization of North America, members of the Ursuline order were the first women missionaries to arrive. In Quebec, they learned from, and worked with, native children, founding the Ursuline Monastery of Quebec, today the oldest institution of learning for women in North America. Brescia University College, founded by the Ursulines in Ontario, remains the only women's college in Canada.

Ursuline Convent in Quebec
Ursuline Convent in Quebec   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Brescia University College, Ontario
Brescia University College, Ontario   Photo Credit: Canadian Government

Further south, twelve Ursuline nuns arrived in the backwater colonial outpost of New Orleans where they founded the Ursuline Academy in 1727. It's the oldest school for girls in the U.S., proud of its heritage of serving individuals from all backgrounds. Ursuline fingerprints can be found far and wide when it comes to women's education in North America.

Ursuline Convent Academy Library 1888
Ursuline Convent Academy Library 1888   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Of course, for much of their history the Ursulines limited their teaching to faith and the role of women in the family, though this certainly changed over the centuries. But more importantly, from their inception they recognized the importance of women as women - as a community worthy of being educated. In this, Angela Merici achieved her vision.

Angela Merici
Angela Merici   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Not all Ursulines became nuns. Many continued the lay tradition established by Merici. However, they were largely suppressed during Napoleonic invasions of Northern Italy, while the Ursuline nuns were able to carry on Merici's teaching traditions under the protection of the Church. The secular Ursulines managed to survive and experienced a resurgence of growth beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Their movement received formal approval when, in 1947, Pope Pius XII created a category in Church law that formally recognized secular groups. The secular Ursulines of today are active and growing.

Angela Merici. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed January 30, 2018.

Company of Saint Ursula. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed January 30, 2018.

Ursulines. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed January 30, 2018.