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For other uses, see Ursuline.
Saint Ursula, painted by
Benozzo Gozzoli (ca. 1455–60).

The term Ursulines refers to a number of religious institutes of the Catholic Church. The best known group was founded in 1535 at Brescia, Italy, by St. Angela Merici (ca. 1474–1540), for the education of girls and the care of the sick and needy. Their patron saint is Saint Ursula. They are divided into two branches, the monastic Order of St. Ursula (post-nominals O.S.U.), among whom the largest organization are the Ursulines of the Roman Union, described in this article. The other branch is the Company of St. Ursula, who follow the original form of life established by their foundress. They are commonly called the Angelines.


Foundational dates[edit]

  • 1535 Angela Merici and 28 companions found the Company of Saint Ursula on 25 November.
  • 1538 The Company holds its first General Chapter, at which Angela is elected "Mother" for life
  • 1539 Angela falls ill, dictates her Testament and Counsels.
  • 1540 Angela dies on 27 January
  • 1546 Pope Paul III formally approves the Company
  • 1768 Angela Merici beatified
  • 1807 Angela Merici canonized[1]


Merici, a member of the Third Order of St. Francis, was a woman of deep mystical gifts, which she combined with the service of the poor and needy. She experienced a call from God to found a community to share this work. Among the group of men and women who formed around her due to her spiritual inspiration, she soon selected 28 women who wished to commit their lives in this endeavor.[2]

These women, along with Merici, made a commitment of their lives to the service of the Church and of the poor on 25 November 1535, the feast day of St. Catherine of Alexandria, a major female spiritual figure in the Middle Ages. The women called themselves the Company of St. Ursula, taking as their patroness the medieval patron saint of education. Continuing to live in their family homes, they would meet regularly for conferences and prayer in common. Merici drew up a Rule of Life for them. She soon added her Testament and a book of Counsels to regulate the life of the group.[3] Merici's vision was that they were to live among the people they served without any distinguishing feature, such as a religious habit.

The Company grew rapidly, being joined by women from throughout the city. The increasing number of members came to be organized in groups, according to the parish in which they lived. The Company then spread throughout the Diocese of Brescia. One of the early works of the new Company was to give religious instruction to the girls of the town at the parish church each Sunday, which was an innovation for the period, having traditionally been left to the local parish priest. Their work quickly spread to other dioceses in the region.[2]

The Company was formally recognized in 1546 by Pope Paul III. Merici's death in 1540, however, had left the Company without a clear leader. Organized loosely, questions about their future began to surface. Additionally, pressure began to come from the officials of the Church, who were uncomfortable with a group of consecrated women living independently, not under the direct authority of the clergy.[3]

Introduction of monastic life[edit]

In 1572 in Milan, at the insistence of St. Charles Borromeo, the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, the Ursulines agree to become an enclosed religious order. Pope Gregory XIII approves this step, putting them under the Rule of St. Augustine, in place of that of Merici. Especially in France, groups of the Company begin to re-shape themselves as cloistered nuns, under solemn vows, and dedicated to the education of girls within the walls of their monasteries.[2]

Ursulines were the main accusers in the Loudun and Aix-en-Provence demonic possession cases.

In the following century, the Ursuline nuns were strongly encouraged and supported by St. Francis de Sales. They were called the "Ursuline nuns" as distinct from the "federated Ursulines" of the Company, who preferred to follow the original way of life. Both forms of life continued to spread throughout Europe and beyond.[3]

The Order was at its most prosperous in the beginning of the 18th century, with 350 convents and from 15,000 to 20,000 nuns.[1]

Ursulines in North America[edit]

The Ursuline Sisters were the first Catholic nuns to land in the new world. In 1639, Mother Marie of the Incarnation (née Marie Guyart, b. 1599), two other Ursuline nuns, and a Jesuit priest left France for a mission to Canada. When they arrived in the summer of 1639, they studied the language of the native peoples and then began to educate and teach the catechism[1] to the native children.[4] They taught reading and writing as well as needlework, embroidery, drawing and other domestic arts.[5][6] The Ursuline Convent established by Marie has been in continuous use by the Ursuline Sisters since its construction.[citation needed] There is an Ursuline convent in Quebec City that is the oldest educational institution for women in North America.[7] Their work helped to preserve a religious spirit among the French population and to Christianize native peoples and Métis.

In 1727, 12 Ursulines from France landed in what is now New Orleans. When the first Ursulines arrived it was not on the banks of the Mississippi but at Mobile, Alabama in 1719 (though information is contradictory from remaining and available sources). The entire group of Ursulines were the first Roman Catholic nuns in what is now the United States. Both properties were part of the French colony. They came to the country under the sanctions of Pope Pius III, and Louis XV of France. Later, their charter came under the jurisdiction of the United States following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.[8]

They instituted a convent and school, both of which continue today.[9] Ursuline Academy (New Orleans) is the oldest continually operating Catholic school in the United States and the oldest girls school in the United States. Convinced that the education of women was essential to the development of a civilized, spiritual and just society, the Ursuline Sisters influenced culture and learning in New Orleans by providing an exceptional education for girls, and women through its now defunct college.

The Ursuline tradition holds many United States firsts in its dedication to the growth of individuals, including the first female pharmacist, first woman to contribute a book of literary merit, first convent, first free school and first retreat center for ladies, first classes for female slaves (which continued until abolition), free women of color (a unique New Orleans group also known as Creoles of Color) and Native Americans. In the region, Ursuline provided the first social welfare center in the Mississippi Valley. They operated the first boarding school in Louisiana, housing and educating a large number of Catholic Hispanic girls and women from central and South American countries - most from economically and socially privileged families. Ursulines operated the first school of music in New Orleans.

The Ursuline College opened on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans' Garden District on the 100th anniversary of Ursuline Education. It taught women from 1927-1965. In 1965 the Ursuline College closed. Low enrollment, competition in the university district, and eliminating the school's program for foreign boarders were factors contributing to its demise.[citation needed]

The Old Ursuline Convent is located in the Vieux Carre (New Orleans' French Quarter). It is the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley. The building now houses the Archdiocese of New Orleans' Archives as well as operating as a tourist attraction/ museum with public tours available almost daily (although one should check the schedule if planning to visit the Old Ursuline Convent). These Ursulines also worked in health care, establishing one of the first hospitals in New Orleans, along with an orphanage. They treated malaria and yellow fever in slave populations when it was not politically or socially accepted.The first pharmacist in the United States was an Ursuline woman practicing in New Orleans in the early 1700s. They had a well established presence as a hospital by the Revolutionary War period in US History. Ursuline sisters treated both British and United States soldiers wounded in the war in the same building. They may have been the first group of women propagating the ideals of diversity in a society, as it was directly related to the teachings of St Ursula and her followers, the Company of St.Ursula (1535), and then by St.Angela Merici foundress of the Order generalate as it is known today (that is the Roman Order, as there are two: "The Ursulines of the East" and "the Roman Order").

The tombstone of the Ursuline Sisters in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery (New Rochelle, New York)

Ursuline nuns, primarily from France and Germany, settled in other parts of North America including Boston (1820), Brown County, Ohio (1845), Cleveland (1850), New York (1855), Louisville (1858), Chatham, Ontario (1860), Bruno (1916) and Prelate (1919), both in Saskatchewan. These foundations spread to other parts of North America including Toledo, Youngstown, OH, Mount St. Joseph, Kentucky, Santa Rosa, Texas, and Mexico City.[10] In 1771, the Irish Ursulines were established at Cork by Nano Nagle.[1]

Towards the beginning of the 18th century, the period of its greatest prosperity, the Ursuline order embraced some 20 congregations, with 350 convents and from 15,000 to 20,000 nuns. The members wore a black dress bound by a leathern girdle, a black sleeveless cloak, and a close-fitting headdress with a white veil and a longer black veil.

The founder of the Order of St.Ursula was beatified by Clement VIII in 1768 and canonized as St. Angela Merici of Brescia by Pius VII in 1807.[citation needed]

Today, while some convents in Europe, Canada, and Cuba continue to observe strict cloister, most convents have adopted less restrictive forms.[citation needed]

Role in education[edit]

Colleges and universities[edit]

In the United States, the Ursulines have founded two well-known Catholic women's colleges. Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio, was founded in 1871 by the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland. It was followed in 1904 by College of New Rochelle, which is located in New Rochelle, New York.

In 1919, the Ursulines founded a university-level liberal arts college for women in London, Ontario, Canada. Currently called Brescia University College (Brescia College at its foundation), it remains the only university-level college for women in Canada and is affiliated with the University of Western Ontario.

From 1922 to 1975 the Mary Manse College in Toledo, Ohio, was operated by the Ursulines. It was a women's college until 1971, then was coeducational for its final four years.

In 1932, the Great Falls Junior College for Women was founded in Great Falls, Montana. Now the University of Great Falls, it has an open admission policy.

The Mount Saint Joseph Junior College for Women operated between 1925 and 1950 in Maple Mount, Kentucky, with the Ursulines offering co-educational extension courses at Owensboro. The Ursulines merged their extension courses with Mount Saint Joseph Junior College in 1950, creating the co-educational Brescia University still in operation today.

In 1966, the Ursulines established in Taiwan what became the Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages.

From 1968 to 2003 the Ursuline Order operated Ursula College at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. It is a co-educational residential college for approximately 200 undergraduates. In 2003 the college was sold to the University and was renamed Ursula Hall. The Ursuline tradition has been retained in the Hall's high educational standards, retention of Ursuline symbols and livery, and the observance of St Ursula's day in October. St Ursula's day is celebrated as Ursies Weekend and is a final opportunity to relax and party before final exams are held in early November.

Secondary education[edit]

Ursuline Convent, Dallas, Texas (postcard, circa 1901-1907)

Ursuline secondary education schools are found across the United States and other countries. The first school, Ursuline Academy, began in 1727 in New Orleans, Louisiana. It is the oldest all-girls school in the country. There is an Ursuline high school in the Bronx, the Academy of Mount St. Ursula High School,[11] It is the oldest all-girls Catholic high school in New York State. It was founded in 1855.

The Ursuline School in New Rochelle, New York is a school for girls in grades 6-12 and is closely affiliated with the nearby Iona Preparatory.

Other notable Ursuline secondary schools in the United States include the all-female Ursuline Academy of Dallas in Dallas, Texas, and the all-female Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Delaware.

In the London Borough of Newham, United Kingdom, is the all-female girl school St. Angela's, named after the founder of the Ursulines. The sixth form centre of the school allows males while the school does not. The same applies to the Ursuline High School in Wimbledon, which has recently been selected as a Regional Winner- "London Secondary" in the Church School Awards 2011.[12] St Ursula's Convent School in Greenwich is part of the order and educates girls aged 11 to 16. The Ursuline College, Westgate-on-Sea, which is part of the order, is open to male and female students.

The British philosopher and author Celia Green has written extensively about her time at the Ursuline High School (now Ursuline Academy Ilford) in Ilford, London.[13] St. Angela de Merici inspired the Ursuline Sisters to provide young women with an opportunity to achieve their full potential. Throughout their lives, students continue to remain part of the Ursuline community and continue to carry forward the legacy of St. Angela de Merici, by serving their society [14]

In Thailand, the Ursulines established Mater Dei School in Bangkok in 1928. It's elite alumni includes Kings Ananda Mahidol and Bhumibol Adulyadej.[15] Although all-girls school, it enrolled boys from Kindergarten to Primary 2 as well.

In Indonesia, the Ursulines established the Prinses Juliana School ni Batavia (1912), after its initial establishment as an Ursuline Convent in 1859. Now the school is known as St. Ursula Catholic School and is an all-girls school.

Like their colleges, not all Ursuline secondary schools have remained single-sex. The aforementioned Ursuline Academy in Delaware permits male students in grades 1-3, and Ursuline High School in Youngstown, Ohio, founded in 1905, is fully co-educational. Other Ursuline secondary schools in the United States include Beaumont School in Cleveland Heights, Ohio (founded in 1850); Ursuline Academy in San Antonio, TX (founded 1851 - closed 1992); Ursuline Academy in Cincinnati, Ohio (founded in 1898); St. Ursula Academy in Cincinnati, Ohio; Ursuline Academy in Saint Louis, Missouri (founded in 1848); the Ursuline Academy of Dedham in Dedham, Massachusetts; Ursuline High School in Santa Rosa, California (founded in 1880); Ursuline Academy in Springfield, Illinois (founded 1857), which was coed from 1981 until it closed in 2007; and St. Joseph's Ursuline Academy in Malone, NY (closed in 1977 and was coed at least from the mid-1960s). There are Ursuline secondary schools in Thurles, County Tipperary; Waterford, Blackrock, County Cork; and Sligo, Ireland, which have remained single sex.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Public Domain Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Ursulines". Encyclopædia Britannica 27 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 804. 
  2. ^ a b c "The Company of St. Ursula". Ursulines of the Roman Union. Retrieved 16 January 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c "Our History". The Company of St. Ursula in the United States. Retrieved 16 January 2013. 
  4. ^ Buescher, John. "Religious Orders of Women in New France", Teachinghistory.org, accessed August 21, 2011
  5. ^ Marie-Emmanuel Chabot "GUYART, MARIE, dite Marie de l’Incarnation," Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
  6. ^ Agnes Repplier, Mère Marie of the Ursulines: a study in adventure (New York, 1931)
  7. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg "The Ursulines". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  8. ^ Dom Guy-Marie Oury, Les Ursulines de Québec, 1639-1953 (2000)
  9. ^ "Ursuline Academy and Convent in New Orleans Before and After Hurricane Katrina Photo Gallery by Coleen Perilloux Landry at". Pbase.com. Retrieved 2012-08-04. 
  10. ^ "Follow the Spirit." Angela Merici and the Ursulines. Editions du Signe. Rome: Spada, 1998
  11. ^ "Academy of Mount Saint Ursula.". Amsu.org. 2010-08-14. Retrieved 2012-08-04. 
  12. ^ "London Secondary | Church Schools Awards". Churchschoolawards.com. 2012-06-28. Retrieved 2012-08-04. 
  13. ^ Green, Celia (2004). Letters from Exile: Observations on a Culture in Decline. Oxford: Oxford Forum.
  14. ^ UrsulineAcademyMA. "The Ursuline Sisters - Carrying forth The Legacy of St. Angela de Merici". YouTube. Retrieved 2012-08-04. 
  15. ^ The History of Mater Dei School

Further reading[edit]

  • Agnes Repplier. Mère Marie of the Ursulines: a study in adventure (New York, 1931), on Canada to 1672
  • Dom Guy-Marie Oury. Les Ursulines de Québec, 1639-1953 (2000)
  • Querciolo Mazzonis, "A female idea of religious perfection: Angela Merici and the Company of St Ursula (1535-1540)," Renaissance Studies, 18,3 (2004), 391-411.
  • Emily Clark (ed), Voices from an American Convent: Marie Madeleine Hachard and the New Orleans Ursulines, 1727-1760 (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2007).
  • Q. Mazzonis, "The Impact of Renaissance Gender-Related Notions on the Female Experience of the Sacred: The Case of Angela Merici's Ursulines," in Laurence Lux-Sterritt and Carmen Mangion (eds), Gender, Catholicism and Spirituality: Women and the Roman Catholic Church in Britain and Europe, 1200-1900 (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011),

External links[edit]