Memorial of St. Angela Merici
Founder of the Ursuline Sisters
Every time I hear this woman’s name I think of two things. First, I think of that most excellent and even more bizarre Helen Reddy song Angie Baby. Second I think of the Maureen McGovern song Different Worlds, theme song to the 1970’s sit-com Angie. I guess I should include that I also think of Angie, the best waitress in the world at the Nutley Diner in Nutley, NJ and also of Sr. Angela the head of religious education at Holy Family Church/Good Shepherd Academy, also in Nutley. Wow, Merici brings a lot to mind.
Angela Merici was born in the late fifteenth century in Italy and at a young age expressed a strong religious bent. As a teen she associated herself with the Franciscan order. In prayer (really, in a vision) she felt Our Lord’s call to do something more. That’s usually how these things start out. She felt that starting a new band of women to establish a school for educating other young women was what she was being asked to do. One source says of her:
St. Angela was of a reflective bent and possibly the first to grasp the changed role of women in the society transformed by the Renaissance.
How “innovational” was she? For starters, this school wasn’t really a school. Her idea was more transformative than all that. She felt that the best way to spread the Gospel was in the home, in the family. It appears that family dysfunction is nothing new and Angela recognized a need to strengthen the home life. So she sent her sisters to teach these young ladies into their homes. Clever, huh? Well, it wasn’t the worst idea. Another innovation was that she wanted her sisters to have no special dress and no solemn vows. On this one, Mother Church put her foot down. Actually, it was for the best. You see, then as now, the structure of religious life with the solemn vows and a distinct habit afford the members a great deal of shared identity and, more importantly, protection (both canonical and otherwise). Angela capitulated and became the foundress of the “company of St. Ursula”. St. Ursula had been seen since early Christian days as a model virgin. I could say so much about that last sentence but I’ll leave it be.
Angie, sorry, Angela, certainly left her mark on the Church and on Europe as a whole. She died in 1540 at a time when her own village was half-Lutheran and Calvinist and yet, to her is attributed the safeguarding of Italy’s Catholic identity. On our own shores, the Ursuline nuns have run a number of fabled girls’ schools including Ursuline Academy here in Dallas (alma mater of my SIL Kris) and Ursuline Academy in New Orleans — the oldest Catholic school in the United States (1727).
Ah! One more… St. Angela also reminds me of a cartoon I saw years ago in the New York Times. I forget the exact context but the caption read “Don’t you believe it.” The single panel was a picture of a grizzly bear dressed as an Ursuline nun, claiming that the bear, raised by pious women, had founded a teaching order of nuns and came to be known as… ready for this?… The Ursine Abbess!