To understand the Ursulines, one must begin with our foundress, St. Angela Merici, and God’s action in her life leading her to offer the Church the gift of a new form of religious life in the 16th century. The Ursuline journey began on Nov. 25, 1535. God in His goodness gave Angela a special grace, a charism which provided her with an aptitude and a readiness for service to the Church.
St. Angela’s vision for her Company of St. Ursula was a new foundation of women that would keep the intrinsic meaning of the total definitive consecration of religious life, outside the monastic setting. This “new life” proposed by Angela maintained the traditional spousal relationship with Christ, but placed it outside the traditional framework of convent and monastery, with the virgins living in the midst of the world but not of it. Sisters, since you have been chosen to be the true and chaste brides of the Son of God, I urge you, or rather I beg you, first to realize how important this choice is and what a new and marvelous dignity it brings to you. (St. Angela, Prologue to the Primitive Rule)
Angela left her daughters three written documents, her Primitive Rule, her Counsels and her Last Testament. These writings underscore two inseparable components that have guided the Ursulines for 474 years: the integration of contemplation and action, and the flexible adaptation to the changing circumstances of time and place. The Charism of the Ursuline Sisters can be best expressed in the words of St. Angela herself:
* Let your first refuge always be to have recourse to Jesus Christ, to pray fervently together … In this way, Jesus Christ will undoubtedly be in your midst, and like a true good Master, He will enlighten and instruct you as to what you should do. (Writings of St. Angela, Last Testament)
* My last word, which I say to you and which I urge upon you to the last drop of my blood, is that you remain in harmony, united together, all of one heart and one will. Be bound one to another by the bond of charity, respecting each other, helping each other and bearing with each other in Jesus Christ. For if you try to be like this, without any doubt the Lord God will be in your midst. St. Angela, 9th Counsel)
* If, according to the times and needs, new rules should be made or any change introduced, do it prudently and with good advice, always turning to Jesus Christ as your main source … Hold it for certain He will never abandon this company till the end of time . . . . Persevere faithfully with the work you have begun. (St. Angela, Last Testament)
The Company of St. Ursula spread throughout Italy and France and eventually through all of Europe. In 1610 an Ursuline Community was established in Paris, France. Two years later, Pope Paul V issued the Bull, “Inter Universa,” which raised the Ursulines of Paris to the status of a religious order and converted them to a monastery of cloistered nuns under the reformed rule of St. Augustine. The Bull contained the added prescription of a fourth vow – to instruct young girls. Thus, the Ursulines’ apostolic character was preserved behind the cloister walls. Seven monasteries of Ursulines were founded from the Congregation of Paris, including the monastery of Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, in 1624. It is from this monastery that the Ursulines of Cleveland were founded. Today, the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland continue to make this fourth vow as a vow of “Christian Education for the service of the Church.”
Although the Church changed the original external structures of the Ursuline Sisters, the charism of St. Angela continued to guide the life and ministry of her daughters. There is a need for fidelity to the founding charism and subsequent spiritual heritage of each Institute. It is precisely in this fidelity to the inspiration of the founders and foundresses, an inspiration which is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit, that the essential elements of the consecrated life can be more readily discerned and more fervently put into practice. (#36 Vita Consecrata)