In the central square of Desenzano del Garda, which overlooks a picturesque fishing port, stands the statue of St Angela Merici, founder of the “Dimesse” di St Ursula, the Congregation of the Ursulines. Born in 1474 and died at the age of sixty-six in 1540 (a truly long life for those times), she was proclaimed saint almost three centuries later, in 1807. A little over thirty years before the outcome of the canonisation process, the Brescian Gelfino Calegari, “hired by his fellow citizens”, as is written on the pedestal of the monument, had carved the future saint in marble, following the typical characteristics of looking to the sky with threadbare clothes, as a wayfarer.
Angela was born into a peasant family who lived in a miserable farmhouse in Le Grezze, a stone’s throw from the important Benedictine abbey of Maguzzano. A few years before it had been destroyed by the Visconti troops and was rebuilt in 1492, is when Angela went to live with a relatively well-off uncle, in Salò, also on Lake Garda. The proximity to one of the most important monastic places in northern Italy contributed for centuries to the religiosity of the people of Desenzano, so Angela grew up listening to the story of the lives of the saints every evening, including, probably, that of St Ursula. A legendary female figure of the early Middle Ages, Ursula was the daughter of a Catholic king of the Britons and was murdered by the Huns in Cologne while escaping an arranged marriage, she returned from a pilgrimage to Rome in the company of a thousand of her virginal maidens, whom she instructed to the truths of the faith. In practice, a proud and independent woman, an activist, a charismatic figure dedicated to teaching and sisterhood.
Back to young Angela. As was common in those days, families were decimated by illness and in fact in a few years their father, mother and four older brothers died. In 1492, Angela and her sister, who had both survived, moved a few kilometers from Desenzano to be hosted by Salò’s maternal uncle. He welcomed them with affection, making sure that the girls had a proper education, including, hygiene, religious rules, and acquired the ability to read and do math. Angela was then eighteen years old. Men were in short supply because they were being called up to fight in the Venetian Republic’s continuous wars, of which Brescia and its countryside were part. A young woman’s prospects to find a husband, perhaps a widower with children, was very difficult (at that time, if they had escaped death due to illness, men died in combat while women died in childbirth); it was more likely they would go into the service of some local noble lady, or, even easier, to fall pregnant from falling in love or from being raped and end up in the middle of the street begging, or perhaps to retreat to a convent. And, paradoxically, convents were often places of corruption and sin. When her sister died, Angela became a Franciscan tertiary. After two years, and when her uncle passed away as well, Angela returned to Desenzano, to her parents’ home, where she started a small school teaching catechism to girls.
Thirty years later she founded the Ursuline Congregation, which was both religious and social.
Returning to her statue, Angela embodied the figure of a woman particularly devoted to love for children in need of education, and above all to the theme of women’s freedom (which at the time meant only a minimum of dignity and education). The Jacobins who ruled Desenzano at the end of the 18th century nevertheless ignored her innovative role. Moreover, in fact the sculpture was removed in 1797 from the town square in favor of a “freedom tree”, but Desenzano’s devout managed to bring it back to its former place in 1800.
If we reread Angela Merici’s story by applying to the conditions of the past the demands of the present, we cannot but consider her a charismatic figure of female redemption, a progenitor. In fact, education -not just religious-, liberation from the game of arranged marriages or punitive sex that leads to a girl ending up on the street, the conquest of the fundamental pedagogical role, and above all of dignity, are the first steps of that impetuous and obstacled race that today leads us to claim equal treatment at work and in our private life. Of course, the story of Angela’s life is now filled with the clichés of holiness: the revelatory visions, the pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Rome, the miracle of the sight lost during the pilgrimage and then found again on her return to Brescia. But, what remains, beyond the stories of the “life of the saint”, is the figure of an independent woman of character, and who has found in her faith and in her testimony a role as a sister among sisters, a way to take care of the destiny of those who have no means, and who bequeathed a solid institution to continue her work.
When Angela founded her religious congregation in 1530 (the Society of St Ursula was made official in 1535) the aim was not to take refuge in prayer with the sisters. Instead, their objective was to have a common home from which to leave every day to go among the people and to carry out charitable missions of affiliation; in practice, to save young women from poverty, oppression and ignorance. In fact, the Society was the first secular religious institute. For Angela, what mattered was not to shut herself up in a monastery but to live in her century, and proof of this is that she wanted the Ursuline government to be run by “virgins” and also by “matrons”. As these widows belonged to the aristocracy of Brescia, and precisely because of their concrete experience as mothers, they could take care of the vocation and needs of “spiritual daughters” with a solicitous and affectionate presence. On the subject of historical records, the Ursulines were the first religious foundation to make the most of the experience and resources of wealthy widows. Besides the taking care of the private sphere of the young sisters, they had a political role. In other words, they were responsible for the integration of this new female institution into the political and civil society of the time. A bond of love, humanity and sisterhood which still persists today in the sixty or so secular Ursulines and religious congregations in Italy and abroad.
by Camilla Baresani
About Sister Rita Giarretta’s , wonderful experience and that of her sisters and Casa Rut, who have been working in Caserta since 1995 to help migrant women victims of trafficking, Carola Susani has written here in Woman Church World. This is just one of the many moral legacies that, centuries after St. Angela Merici’s death, the intuitions of this visionary woman have established. For her, the progress of society had to include the education of women, and the best way to achieve this goal was the apostolate, militancy, inclusion. In Desenzano, in addition to Angela’s statue, on whose pedestal tourists sit contemplating the small harbor and the Venetian-style bridge (and who may not know anything about her extraordinary history), there is the seat of the Mericianum. Constructed precisely at the location of her birthplace, it is the centre of spirituality inspired by the saint. Since 1978, in addition to studying the “Merician charisma”, it has also been involved in fostering sororal relations between secular and religious Ursulines.
Born Desenzano del Garda, 21 March 1474
Died Brescia, 27 January 1540
Venerated by the Catholic Church
Beatification April 30, 1768 by Pope Clement XIII
Canonisation May 24, 1807 by Pope Pius VII
Anniversary January 27
Camilla Baresani was born in Brescia; she has written novels, essays, short stories. The most recent books she has published are:
Gelosia [Jealousy] (La nave di Teseo, 2019), Gli sbafatori (Mondadori Electa, 2015), Il sale rosa dell’Himalaya [Pink Salt from the Himalayas] (Bompiani, 2014) which received the International Literature Prize City of Como, the Cortina d'Ampezzo Prize, the City of Vigevano Prize.
She teaches creative writing at the Molly Bloom School.
For TV she is the author of the format of Romanzo Italiano [Italian Novel], a “geoliterary” program with interviews of 29 writers who speak of the places that have inspired their fiction.