Angela Merici was born about 1474 in Desenzano (now Via Castello 96), in N. Italy. Her father, Giovanni Merici, was from Desenzano, and her mother, Caterina, was from Salò, a small town on the western side of Lake Garda.
Angela was brought up in a family deeply rooted in faith, and this marked her whole life. At a very early age she lost her dearly beloved parents and her sister. Angela was then sent to stay with her uncle at Salò. While living there she decided to become a member of the Third Order of St Francis, a group of lay people who follow the spirituality of St Francis of Assisi.
Angela Merici lived in the time of the Renaissance and Reformation, a period marked by many controversies and conflicts. Her contemporaries were famous people like Nicholas Copernicus, Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Michelangelo. On the one hand there were great achievements in science and art, but on the other hand there were frequent wars among the nations and ruling families, bringing great material and spiritual impoverishment to the people. Ancient traditions, especially in the Church, were abandoned, and this led to a serious deterioration in both faith and education. Faced with the lowering of standards among the Church hierarchy and the monasteries, there is no doubt that the Church badly needed reform and renewal. Martin Luther and his followers launched their Protestant movement with the aim of reforming the Church from outside. Others, like Ignatius Loyola and Teresa of Avila, aimed at reforming the Church from within - the so-called Catholic Counter- Reformation.
The Holy Spirit is always at work renewing the face of the earth, and from an early age Angela was caught up by the Spirit. It took her a long time, though, to discern God's will for her. When she later settled in Brescia, not far from Desenzano, there were constant calls upon her energy and time, especially from broken families and persons in need or distress. Despite the constant flow of people coming to seek her help and advice, she spent long hours alone in prayerful union with Jesus, her Amatore, her Beloved.
Gradually, however, God's will became clearer to Angela. Mindful of a vision she had had in her youth, she knew that God was asking her to establish a new kind of religious life for women who did not want to live a cloistered life in a convent.
The Company of St Ursula
On 25th November, 1535, Angela founded her little Company of St Ursula in Brescia. She and her followers, 28 virgins, the first Ursulines, consecrated themselves to God, but not by living in a monastery or convent, as was customary in those days. They remained in the world, at home, living with their families and friends. Wherever they were, at home, in their workplace, they tried to become light, salt and leaven for the spread of God's Kingdom.
Angela was the first woman religious in the Church to open the way to women living radically the evangelical counsels in a secular type of institution. Before her death in 1540, Angela left three Writings, her Rule, Counsels and Testament, as a heritage to her spiritual daughters. The Company of St Ursula spread grew rapidly and soon spread to different countries throughout the world. Some of the Companies formed autonomous groups and in 1957 they established a Federation called the Secular Institute of St Angela Merici. Its members are known as Secular Ursulines. A group of these secular followers of St Angela was started in Indonesia in 1989.
In the course of history, Angela's life and teaching also inspired numerous religious institutes that adopted her Rule. These followers were known as Religious of St Ursula or Ursulines. They, too, spread rapidly throughout the world as autonomous groups. In 1900, the Pope made an appeal to Ursulines to form a union, and in that year the Roman Union of St Ursula was born. Other unions soon followed, such as the Canadian and Tildonk Unions.