On January 27th, Catholics celebrate the feast day of St. Angela Merici. For both Catholics and non-Catholics, Angela’s story is inspiring. Angela was a woman who dedicated her life to the education of poor, young women at a time and in a place where such a thought was absurd. Her dedication turned into a society of educators who continue her work to this day, the Order of Ursulines.
Angela was born in a small town in Lombardy, Italy in 1474. During this time in Italy’s history, and indeed much of the world, the only chance for a woman to gain an education was to: A. Be born into a wealthy family, or B. Become a nun. Even those women who managed to gain an education were not allowed to be teachers due to constraining social rules for women. Nuns were restricted to cloisters and single women were prohibited from going out of their homes by themselves, essentially cloistering them as well.
Angela had gained an education through her decision to join the Franciscan religious order as a tertiary– a position that allowed her an education while not restricting her to a cloister. She chose this profession after losing her parents and sister to illness all before the age of 15. Seeing the young women in the town who were growing up in the streets without any access to education, Angela became passionate about making sure these girls could go to school.
With humble means, Angela gathered friends of hers, other unmarried men and women who had been educated through the Church, and she began a school for girls in her own home. It did not take long until the school expanded to other homes of women who were now teachers – a position that had rarely been held by women, except mothers to their own children.
So successful was Angela’s humble but groundbreaking model that the Pope (Clement VII) called Angela to take charge of an order of sisters who would serve as nurses. At a time when the Pope held immense power in Italy and beyond, Angela felt so compelled by her mission to educate the poor girls of Italy, that she actually said no to the Pope (politely I’m sure).
Angela returned to her work. What began as a group of close friends who shared her passion, became an extended network of women teachers. They became the first group of Catholic women to work outside the cloister and the first teaching order of women. By the time of her death in 1540, The Order of the Ursulines had grown to 24 branches. Today, the Ursulines are responsible for thousands of learning institutions all over the world, many of them still dedicated exclusively to the education of young women.
It’s amazing how much a woman and her friends can change the world when they have a vision and they stick to it.
-Kelly (guest blogger)
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