How we got the name Ursulines

Written by Sister Dorothy Kundracik in October 2013

If St. Angela Merici founded the Ursulines, why are we named after St. Ursula? Unlike the Dominican and Franciscan orders, named for their founders, St. Angela chose to offer her maidens the model and protection of St. Ursula. We celebrate St. Ursula’s feast day on October 21.

st ursula
An artist’s rendering of
St. Ursula.

Angela’s father read to his children from the Lives of the Saints. In northern Italy, where Angela lived, there were many artists’ works displayed in the churches. These renderings of saints were a way to remember and tell the stories of holy people from the past.

People have always needed heroes. Saintly people inspired others — held up for their bravery, steadfastness, and willingness to suffer for what they believed.

St. Ursula, circa the 5th century, is honored as the patron saint and protector of Cologne, Germany. One legend is that Ursula and a band of companions sailed from Britain for Rome to visit the tombs of the saints. Swept northward by a storm and wrecking at the mouth of the Rhine River, they met Attila and his barbarous Huns, who were planning to attack Cologne. Refusing to yield to the barbarians’ lustful desires, the women were slaughtered, “martyred for their faith and maidenhood.”

How might Angela have understood this tale? While the Medieval culture tended to diminish women in economics, sexuality, education, politics and culture, Angela pursued respect for unmarried women. She was seeking an ideal for her companions to espouse, emulate, and if necessary, die for. She found that ideal in Ursula, who embodied the Gospel and protected her companions. At home in Brescia and in other Italian churches, Angela’s eyes must have prayed with many paintings popular at that time. Angela especially would have loved the painting by Moretto of Ursula that still graces the Church of St. Clement.

In it, Ursula is depicted as a graceful, beautiful, wise, cultured scholar. Her learning confounded church doctors and theologians; Ursula was the special protector of the theological school and the Sorbonne in Paris. Her influence was far reaching: Columbus named the Virgin Islands after St. Ursula and her companions. Angela took that life of Ursula that was monumentalized as a confident, charismatic leader, with her intelligence, grace, goodness, and resolve and gave it to her company to immortalize in their lives.

Just as the women in Ursula’s story stood up to evil, women today need to stand up and refuse to be treated as objects rather than persons. Ursula stood up to the barbarians. She and her companions stood firm on what they believed, their dignity and self-possession, and on their love of the good and beautiful.

We can hardly do less.