It is altogether difficult for us, in our time, to form an idea of how bold Angela's plan was....[Sigrid Undset, Stages on the Road, Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, IN: 2012) pp. 88, 89.]
Angela Merici was clear as to her own task: she was to work for the renewal of religious life at home, among the children, and in the first place she was to influence the girls who in due time would build up new homes and be the mothers of the next generation. And above all her Company was to try to come in contact with that section of the people who were unable or disinclined to attend to their children's schooling, especially that of their little daughters.
Today is the memorial of St. Angela of Merici, Virgin. Born in 1474 in Italy, she at some point had a vision of an association of women devoted to the religious training of young girls. This would lead to the eventual foundation of the Company of St. Ursula in 1535. The Company was quite a revolutionary idea. That St. Angela knew this is right there in the name. St. Ursula was a patron saint of education, particularly for young women, but she was also semi-legendary British princess who, according to the most popular legend, was sent by her father to be married, attended by 11000 virgins. As Ursula did not want to be married, she instead spent the time sailing around with a little fleet of eleven ships for three years, and then decided that she needed to go on pilgrimage from Rome to Cologne before actually settling down to marry. (The whole army of women was, according to the same legend, martyred by the Huns in Cologne when the chieftain tried to marry Ursula and she decided that she would pass on that marriage, too.) The basic idea of the Company of St. Ursula was remarkable for its day: instead of religious women entering a convent for contemplation, the Company would be consecrated women going out into the world, an army of women fighting the degeneration of family life by making sure that young girls were educated. It was new idea.
Too new for the day, perhaps. The looseness of medieval life could perhaps have room for such a thing, at least on a small scale, but the age was turning early modern, and thus more rigidly structured. While Angela was alive, the Company was largely protected by her administrative skill and good reputation among the authorities; but after her death, the Company became less tightly organized and the authorities began to rein in this project of independent women in active ministry in society at large. Part of this, it should be said, was also general policy; the Church was becoming more centralized, and more reforming in character, and in an attempt to do something about crazier religious movements had begun more and more to enforce enclosure. The Company of Ursula fell victim to this policy and eventual became more conventional conventuals, although they continued to run schools for girls. It wasn't until the twentieth century that the idea began to have a resurgence, under the label 'secular institute', although the Ursulines had kept the memory, at least alive. The Ursulines today now have two branches -- the Order of St. Ursula, which is the monastic order, and the Angelines or Company of St. Ursula, which is the federated system of secular institutes that began to be formed in the 1950s or so on the original model suggested by St. Angela.
In 1934, Sigrid Undset ended her essay on St. Angela Merici with a recognition that her story had not yet reached its end:
And there are still germs in the ideas of St. Angela Merici whcih have not reached development; it may yet be that la grande madre suor Angela will give life to new families within the great home of the Church, and new generations will arise and call her blessed. [p. 103]