Angela of Brescia (1474–1540)

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Angela of Brescia (1474–1540)

Founder of the Ursuline nuns, a Roman Catholic order focused on teaching young girls and young women. Name variations: Angela Merici. Pronunciation:Mer-EE-chi. Born Angela Merici on March 21, 1474, at Grezze on Lake Garda in Italy, though a local legend persists that she was born in the town of Desenzano, a few miles away; died on January 27, 1540, in Brescia; daughter of John Merici (a well-todo vintner), and Signora Merici (of the Biancosi merchant family from Salo); never married, no children.

Orphaned in early teens and moved to Salo; became a member of the third Order of St. Francis, a lay order dedicated to charitable works and teaching; experienced a vision that told her to found an order of women in Brescia (c. 1495); dedicated to St. Ursula, the order was formally approved as an unenclosed group of women devoted to teaching children, especially young girls (August 8, 1536).

The end of the 15th century was a time of change and innovation. Christopher Columbus opened the sea route to the Americas, Henry VII ended the War of the Roses in England and reunited the ruling houses of Lancaster and York, and the Jews were expelled from the Iberian peninsula during the joint reign of Ferdinand and Isabella I (1451–1504) of Spain. The age of new invention and new art included the novel idea of the printing press and the works of the Renaissance artists Raphael and Michelangelo. It was an age that found women with generally low status, tied to their male relatives for both rank and survival. Bracketed between the birth years of two famous men, Nicholas Copernicus (1473), the Polish astronomer who popularized the heliocentric theory of the universe, and Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475), the painter of the Sistine Chapel, was the birth of Angela Merici, the founder of the teaching order of the Ursuline nuns, on March 21, 1474.

The fate of a woman in the society of 15th-century Italy was linked to her dowry and to her husband. History notes the name of Angela's father as John Merici, a well-to-do farmer and vintner, who owned the farm and the house called Grezze. There, Angela was born, a scant two miles outside the town of Desenzano on the shores of Lake Garda in Italy. Angela's mother, on the other hand, is remembered only as Signora Merici, whose family was comprised of wealthy merchants from Salo. Signora Merici gave birth to at least one other child besides Angela. Biographers know of the existence of one verifiable sister who influenced Angela's life in many ways. The number of other children is difficult to assess; there may have been another sister or two, and as many as three brothers, all of whom would have died during childhood, and perhaps before Angela was born.

The two surviving children, Angela and her sister, grew up on the farm. Portraits of the family show the group reading from the lives of the saints, Legenda Sanctorum, a book printed in 1475. Reading and home-teaching formed the basis of Angela's education. Her later knowledge of Latin was, in fact, seen to be miraculous due to a lack of formal schooling. Probably in her childhood, at the knee of her father, she developed a strong devotion to Saint Ursula , a British princess martyred by marauding Huns in the 5th century. According to legend, Angela and her sister enacted the stories of the saints and practiced the penances they read about, including fasting and hours of long prayer.

They were the closest of friends. The two little girls with the fair hair, clear complexions, and short stature were a regular sight in the town and on the farm. However, at the time Angela was about ten years old, her sister died. (The exact date is unknown; some biographers place it about five years later, after Angela's move to Salo.) Her death affected Angela greatly. She missed her sister and prayed for her so intensely that her first recorded vision is attributed to this period: Angela had a mystical vision at Barchetto of her sister in heaven, with angels bearing her happily to her eternal reward. Whether this vision served to put Angela at ease is uncertain, but undeniably her life during the next few years was one of sadness and loss. Within a year of her sister's death, her father died, leaving Angela and her mother to run the farm. Within the passage of yet another year, her mother died and Angela was an orphan. Though there is no exact date, it is reasonable to assume that Angela was orphaned before she was 15 years of age. As a young girl, she required a guardian, so her maternal uncle moved her to the Biancosi family home in Salo. There Angela spent her remaining teen years.

By the time she was 20 years old, Angela joined the Third Order of Saint Francis. The Franciscan Tertiary was the lay branch of the Franciscans who lived at home, wore simple dress (neither white nor black) and a veil. They did not attend banquets, social functions, or dances, and spent their time in charitable works, such as visiting the sick, daily prayer, and teaching the catechism. This was evidently not enough for Angela, and she attempted to run away from Salo to become an anchorite. Her uncle, however, brought her back and put an end to that scheme.

Angela's 20th year, 1495, was a year of fighting in northern Italy between Francis I of France and Charles V of Spain, heir to the title of Holy Roman emperor. War was not uncommon in northern Italy where inter-city warfare was led by men like the condottieri Francesco Sforza in Milan and the Medici in Florence whose one-time advisor Niccolo Machiavelli preserved the ideology of the era in his work, The Prince. Amid civil strife, Angela left Sola to return to Grezze, her paternal inheritance. There, she became well-known for teaching young girls their catechism, caring for the sick, and aiding the needy. With a group of young women, she spent her time traveling around Lake Garda to the local towns doing good works. It was at Brudazzo during this period of her life that Angela had her second mystical experience. A vision of stairs or a ladder stretching from heaven to earth is said to have filled her soul. Upon the stairs were angels and young women moving down in groups playing music. The vision told her, "Before you die, you are to found, in Brescia, a company like these virgins."

Traveling around the lake, Angela made many contacts. One of the most influential was Caterina Patengula , a wealthy woman who had come to spend time at her summer home on Lake Garda after the death of her sons. Angela consoled her, and they became such good friends that Angela left Grezze in 1516 and moved in with Patengula in Brescia. She continued to lodge there for some months before she took a room in the home of Antonio Romano, a room she kept for 14 years.

The years of Angela's young adulthood were years of disarray, both in her homeland and in Western Europe. Brescia itself was troubled with warring families within the confines of the town, and warring city-states threatened the city repeatedly from the outside. Furthermore, the influence of the Inquisition was seen in the district surrounding Brescia between 1516 and 1524. During that time, a number of young adolescent girls were tried and convicted of witchcraft. Angela felt the girls were acting young, naive, and dangerously silly, but that was not grounds for burning as a witch. At the height of the scandal, some 2,500 persons were involved, and in July 1518 eight girls were sentenced to burn. The Inquisition used innuendo and torture to obtain the confessions. To Angela, this was just one more example of how young women lacked education and were exploited by society. Young girls without the chance of a good dowry had few choices, and many became caught up in fads and illusions, some of which ended with the witchcraft trials.

The fears of the Inquisition were reinforced by the heresy of the monk Martin Luther in Germany. In 1517, he had attacked certain moneymaking schemes of the Catholic Church, including the selling of indulgences to augment the Vatican treasury. Luther had valid objections and probably never intended to leave the Church. However, a number of German princes thought less Vatican control would be an ideal way to increase their own power. Rapidly, Luther's message swept northern Europe and the "heresy" began to filter into northern Italy through the words of street-corner preachers. This "Reformation," and the general plight of young untutored girls, strengthened Angela's resolve to develop a new type of education to combat the doctrinal disputes of the Reformation and to offer women another choice beyond the convent.

The next 16 years of Angela's life were dedicated to her new mission and new ideal. She envisioned a company of lay women from all socio-economic groups. There was to be no social stratification among the sisters who were to take quiet vows and live uncloistered among the people they served through nursing, teaching, and catechizing. There was to be no formal dress or formal rituals. In part, Angela planned this type of life for the young girls, and widows who embraced it, as an alternative to the convent. Some dowerless girls found the convent an unwelcome option, which led to scandal and excesses within the convents themselves.

In her search for the right method for her congregation, Angela made a series of pilgrimages. Her first was to Blessed Osanna Andreasi in Mantua in early 1524. After her return, she embarked for Jerusalem in late May. As Angela toured the Holy Land and the sites where Jesus had walked, she suffered a loss of vision that was not restored until she neared Italy on the voyage home. After a difficult passage, she reached the coastline of Italy and stayed in Venice that autumn. Though asked by the doge's council to remain in the city and administer the Hospital of Incurables, Angela returned home. After a brief stay, she journeyed to Rome in 1525 where she had an audience with Pope Clement VII, who blessed her mission.

Angela returned to Brescia in the midst of a plague year. The plague was not only of disease, but of mercenaries left behind by warring armies to overrun the cities of northern Italy. Angela had a reputation as an arbitrator in cases of civil unrest. This function may have brought her to the attention of the young duke Francesco Sforza who had been exiled from Milan in 1521, when the duchy was attacked by Charles V of France. Angela listened and lent advice to the duke.

In 1529, Angela took one of her last major pilgrimages to Varalla, Italy, or the "New Jerusalem." On the way home, she visited Sforza in Milan. Perhaps through his intercession, she met and spoke to Stefana Quinzani , prioress at the convent of Dominican Tertiaries at Soncino. Entering what was to be the last decade of her life, Angela returned to Brescia to organize her congregation only to find the city beset by new difficulties and new threats. The people of Brescia moved into exile in Cremona where Angela stayed with a new sponsor Agostino Gallo and his sister Hippolyta . That year, the usually hearty Angela fell ill and nearly died.

Fortunately, her health and peace returned in 1530. When Charles V of France was crowned by Pope Clement VII in Bologna on February 24, Sforza was once again returned to Milan, and Angela returned to Brescia where she occupied an apartment next to the church of Saint Afra 's. Making her last pilgrimage to Varallo, she returned home to finish work on her Rule for the congregation and to organize it formally. By this time, a group of young women and widows followed her and kept her company, no doubt influenced by the tales of her sanctity, which were enhanced by reports that she levitated during prayer.

By 1531, Angela had the basic structure of her company. It derived its sense of mission from the lives of three Catholic saints, Saint Paula (347–404), a Roman widow; Saint Elizabeth of Hungary (1207–1231), the queen of that nation and a woman devoted to aiding the poor and sick; and finally, Saint Ursula. On November 25, 1535, Angela and 28 companions received communion and initiated their new order. Between 1534 and 1537, the congregation chose its leadership and organized itself through democratic elections. Finally, on August 8, 1536, the congregation was approved by Cardinal Cornaro's vicar-general.

As the congregation was originally envisioned, maidens, matrons, and men made up the group. Angela's secretary was a man named Gabriel Cozano, but further involvement of men never materialized. The women devoted themselves to good works, nursing, and charity. Their special mission, however, was to educate young girls and young women. Girls had had little chance for education unless a widow opened up a school in her home. The Ursulines entered the homes of the girls to teach them and to mold them. Angela's philosophy permeated her work: "The teacher only a care-taker? Perish the thought! The teacher's office must be to foster, to direct, to instruct…. Inquire into their conditions … in fact their whole being."

Disorder in society is the result of disorder in the family.

—Angela of Brescia

In order to carry out this work, the city was divided into quadrants, and the teachers were encouraged not to try to instill a vocation for religious life but to teach the girls and listen to them. Just as her mission was beginning to succeed, Angela fell ill in 1539. Nursed through the summer and fall, she died on January 27, 1540, and was interred at St. Afra's Church beside which she had lived for so long. Her body still resides there, below the high altar. The Catholic Church beatified her in 1768, and she was canonized in 1807; her feast day is celebrated on May 31.

Angela's congregation, which numbered around 100 at the time of her death, did not endure for as long as she had planned. Under pressure from the Reformation, the Catholic Church began a Counter-Reformation to remove all vice from the Church or anything that might be considered a temptation. Virgins unenclosed and in contact with the world were seen as one such temptation. The Council of Trent (1545–63) affirmed the Catholic Church's strict ideas on enclosure for women. Under the "reforms" of Saint Charles Borremeo, the Ursulines found themselves living in cloisters and wearing traditional habits. However, they were allowed to continue their work as teachers of young girls. By 1576, the order spread into France and on into the Benelux countries by 1611. From there, the Ursulines migrated to the Americas by the mid-17th century where they continued to teach girls in convent-based schools.

The movement that Angela of Brescia founded began as a response to the plight of young women and the hazards of unprotected life without education. Living through the early throes of the Reformation, Angela offered a way to reform both female monasticism and female education. In many ways, she was before her time in her conception of the Ursulines as unenclosed lay workers.

As a saint, her mission is traditionally explained by her vision of inspiration; as a woman, her vision was an intelligent response to the societal problems around her. If women were the center of the home, she reasoned, the most effective way to reform society was to reform the role of women and, concomitantly, their educational opportunities. In that way, both the family and society would be reformed for the good of all concerned.


Bridenthal, Renate, Claudia Koonz, and Susan Stuard, eds. Becoming Visible. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin, 1987.

Boulding, Elise. The Underside of History. Vol. II. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992.

Caraman, Philip. Saint Angela: The Life of Angela Merici, Foundress of the Ursulines. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1963.

Monica, Sister Mary. Angela Merici and Her Teaching Idea (1474–1540). Saint Martin, OH: The Ursulines of Brown County, 1945.

Ruether, Rosemary, and Eleanor McLaughlin, eds. Women of Spirit. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1979.

suggested reading:

Anderson, Bonnie S., and Judith P. Zinsser. A History of Their Own. NY: Harper and Row, 1988.

Michaela Crawford Reaves , Department of History, California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, California