Angela Merici

Querciolo Mazzonis

in Renaissance and Reformation

ISBN: 9780195399301
Published online June 2012 | | DOI:
Angela Merici

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy


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St. Angela Merici (b. c. 1474, Desenzano del Garda–d. 27 January 1540, Brescia) is the founder of the Company of St. Ursula, which later became the order of the Ursulines. A Franciscan tertiary who had spent most of her life in Desenzano and Salò, Merici arrived in Brescia in her early forties, and, like other female “living saints” of her time, she became a religious focal point for her fellow citizens. From the few testimonies of Merici’s friends as well as from her own writings, Merici emerges as both contemplative and active, mystical and practical, as well as learned and aware of the matters of everyday life. In 1535, with a group of female companions, Merici founded the Company of St. Ursula, for which she composed the rules and some advice for its government. Historiography has often associated Merici and her company with the education of poor girls and charity in hospitals. These activities, however, belong to a later stage in the development of the Ursulines and have little to do with Merici’s original foundation. Merici’s company consisted in an innovative form of women’s secular consecration, an alternative to monasticism, that was independent from Church authorities and entirely composed and managed by women. The Ursulines were “virgins-brides of Christ” (as described in Merici’s rule) who pursued a life of prayer and penitence in their own houses, without common life or activities. The spiritual life envisaged by the rule was mystical, an institutional, public, ethical, affective, individual, and inward-looking. Merici’s company can be seen as an institutional expression of medieval and Renaissance women’s “irregular” forms of life and spirituality such as that of the Beguines. Furthermore, Merici conceived her company in a period characterized by a variety of nonaligned religious experiences and shared an ideal of religious perfection based on virtuous behavior and inner purity with other spiritual circles and associations. In the late 16th century, the Ursulines expanded in many cities in northern Italy, thanks to the combined initiative of women willing to follow Merici’s religious ideal and Tridentine bishops (beginning with Charles Borromeo) in promoting the Catholic education of the laity. The bishops approved the companies and gave them new rules introducing some significant changes, most notably the duty to teach Christian Doctrine (which provided religious and moral education to the laity) in the schools. In 1592 the Ursulines expanded into France where they gradually—and not without internal struggle—became a conventual and teaching religious order. Both in Italy and France, the evolution of the Ursulines’ foundations was the product of a dynamic interaction between religious women and the Tridentine church’s attempts to reform female religious life. In 1639 the Ursulines became the first female missionary institute. The order also supported the Catholic Reformation in the catechization of society, becoming pioneers in the education of lay women and a prototype of the single lay woman. Angela Merici was canonized by Pope Pius VII in 1807.

Article.  6506 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

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