On November 25, 1535, led by Angela Merici, a small group of 28 women gathered in the northern Italian city of Brescia. They attended Mass and then signed their names in the 'Book of the Company of St Ursula'. This simple ceremony was the beginning of what we now know as the Order of St Ursula, or more commonly, the Ursuline Sisters.
Little reliable information is available on the foundress Angela Merici. We know she was born about 1472 in Desenzano, northern Italy. It is believed that in her early adulthood, she experienced a deep sense of the clarity of God's will for her. Angela knew this as God, inviting her to bring together women, who would support and nourish each other in their prayer and faith, and then return to their homes and places of work to share and spread God's love for each invididual person. The remainder of her life was the unfolding of this early extraordinary encounter with God.
To support her in this faith journey, Angela became a Third Order Franciscan, teaching catechism and being willing to go wherever she was needed. In her 40's, Angela was sent to Brescia. Here, she soon merged into the life of the city, a woman of calm thought and quiet purpose, who, with a pleasant, outgoing personality, and a secure sense of personal worth, mingled freely and related simply and naturally with members of all classes. A prayerful woman, Angela quickly established a reputation as a prudent, wise and holy person. It was only natural that she should finally emerge as the recognised leader of a number of Brescian women who wished to be united to support one another in their commitment to God and to strengthen the charitable works in which they were engaged.
Angela did not found a religious order, nor did she found an education order, but rather, a group of companions - known more as 'the company of Anglela'. Angela had said: "And you do whatever has to be done". Consequently, their work was fairly varied. It did, amongst other things, involve caring for orphans and the sick, working in hospitals and teaching catechetics.
The members of Angela's Company lived in their own homes and dressed simply. They lived devout lives and, from their homes, exercised an active apostolate, giving religious and secular instruction, and involved themselves in other charitable works.
Angela died in 1540. Shortly after her death, the Company spread to Milan, then to France, and it was in Paris that the Order of St Ursula was established in 1612. Angela's original concept had changed. But her spirit lived on, and the order rapidly expanded throughout Europe, Asia, America and Africa. Today, Ursulines throughout the world love in the spirit of St Angela and respond to the needs of a changing world.
Mission and Ministry:
Australian Ursuline Sisters are engaged in the following broad fields of education and care:
School and University Education
Accommodation for tertiary students
Centre for ecology and spirituality
Work with marginalised people
Parish pastoral ministry
Work with families
A woman exploring a call to religious life as an Ursuline Sister journeys initially with one of our sisters who gives the enquirer the guidance needed to help discern her call.
Permeated with the spirit of Angela, the programme of formation aims to integrate the authentic values of our tradition with a continual adaptation to the specific needs of each person, the church and the world.
This begins with a period of 'postulancy' ('pre-novitiate') - varying between 6 months and two years. Postulancy is followed by a 2-year novitiate. This takes place within a community and is a focussed time of prayer, reflection, study of the Ursuline story and spirit, scripture and theology. During the first year of the novitiate ('canonical year'), the novice makes a 30-day retreat. This offers her an experience of prolonged prayer and discernment. She also joins with novices from other congregations twice weekly. This broadens the context of the formation programme, and provides the important dimension of peer interaction within the formation process. The 2nd year of the novitiate is more flexible, and continues the process begun in the 1st year.
Towards the end of this period, if the novice and those involved in her formation, agree to her admission, then she makes her profession of vows.