Today we’re accustomed to seeing religious women – nuns – at work in almost every area of public life. We’ve quite forgotten that until not so long ago, the cloister and physical seclusion was the only way for women to live their devotion. The change is largely because of pioneering women like Angela Merici, the 15th century founder of the Ursuline Order, the first group of women in the Church to be devoted to teaching the young. Angela was born in north Italy in poor circumstances. She combined an intense piety with a strong desire to be of service, specially to the sick and to the young. She joined the Third Order of St Francis, a lay group with Franciscan inspiration. When she was barely 20, her conviction grew that she was meant to start a group of women to take care of the instruction of the young and so restore family life; and through the family, all society. But it was almost 30 years before she could realise this dream. In 1525, along with 28 other women, she started the ‘company of St Ursula’ at Brescia, and pledged herself and her group to teaching the young and the caring for the sick and prisoners. Angela Merici did not long survive her foundation, but the Ursulines increased in strength and numbers, and their influence on the education of women has been has been seen wherever the Church is found.
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