Born in Lombardy and orphaned at an early age, Angela Merici became a Franciscan tertiary and embraced a life of prayerful simplicity. After spending many years in almost continuous pilgrimage, visiting shrines of Italy, she had a vision one day in which she beheld a company of angels and maidens descending from a ladder in the heavens. A voice revealed that she would found a community whose members would be as numerous as the maidens thus revealed to her.
For some years Angela offered religious instruction to the children of her poor neighbors. Over the years, when not travelling, she had made this her regular occupation. Other women were gradually inspired to join her. Finally, after she had settled in Brescia, Angela had a group of twenty-eight women prepared to consecrate themselves with her to God’s service. They chose as their patron St. Ursula, a legendary fourth-century martyr widely venerated as a protector of women.
Although she devised a simple rule for her Ursuline community, Angela did not initially conceive of them as a religious order. While dedicating themselves to the education of poor girls, the members wore no habits and took no vows; they continued to live with their families rather than behind an enclosure. The idea of such an association of religious women was unheard of at the time. But the work of Angela and her companions was widely admired. Angela observed, “Each member of the Company should strive to despoil herself of everything and set all her good, her love, her delight, not in robes, nor in food, nor in relatives, but in God alone and in his benign and ineffable Providence.”
By the time of her death on January 27, 1541, Angela was revered as a living saint in Brescia. Crowds of people would follow her to church, attracted in part by her reputation for levitating several inches off the ground while gazing on the Eucharist. Four years after Angela’s death, Rome approved a constitution for her congregation, which would in time come to number many tens of thousands. She was canonized in 1807.