The Uniqueness of The Ursulines

Italy in the 16th century offered women little chance to achieve any leadership or authority in their lives, nor could they live their spirituality in the world. Then a woman who signified the changing tide, Angela Merici, came along and opened new doors to the women of her time.

That was the message delivered by Querciolo Mazzonis, retreat director for The Ursulines in Cleveland, Ohio. Mazzonis (whose first name is pronounced “Qwhere-cholo”) is the author of “Spirituality, Gender, and the Self in Renaissance Italy,” a 2007 book that gives context to the world in which Saint Angela lived when she formed the Company of Saint Ursula, which led to today’s Ursuline Sisters.

Women of Saint Angela’s time had only two choices – becoming a “bride of Christ” and entering a cloistered religious community, or getting married, Mazzonis said. Their occupations were limited to servants and midwives, and rather than being paid a salary, they were given donations to their dowry so they could get married.

Saint Angela offered a third way to live. The Renaissance period was fertile for new ways of spirituality and mysticism among women, who unlike the men of that time, showed disdain for vows, institutions, and hierarchy.

“Feminine spirituality was often described as passive, but women didn’t consider themselves passive,” Mazzonis said. “Spiritual women were socially powerful. One could say that Catherine of Siena and Angela Merici were the most important women up to modern feminism.”

That power is what led the church leaders of the time to criticize the Company of Saint Ursula, Mazzonis said. “Although Angela was a mystic, she was very rational,” he said. “She created a company fully managed by women, separate from the church, all elected without a concern for social upbringing. This was extraordinary at the time.”

Mazzonis’ research dispels the notion that Saint Angela founded her company to teach young girls who were poor or imperiled, or to help in hospitals. This idea was likely spread by men of the time, because Saint Angela did not have a male confessor who acted as a biographer, Mazzonis said. “She probably didn’t want one around.”

Saint Angela’s purpose was to allow women to carry out their spirituality in the world as a bride of Christ. The men of that time were aghast that religious women would be free to mix with the rest of society, Mazzonis said.

Virginity was a valuable commodity at that time, which men described as “a precious treasure in fragile glass,” and thus, in need of protection by men, Mazzonis said. But Saint Angela considered virginity a tool of independence and empowerment, which is why the men in power were critical.

“Women did not have control of their social status, but virginity is what they could control,” Mazzonis said. “Angela used virginity to separate the company from society. Virginity was seen as much more than sexuality by women.”

While women in cloisters were physically separated from the world, Angela provided her daughters – including today’s Ursuline Sisters – a way to be “separated from the world through an inner detachment from secular values.”

The Renaissance period led to a change in the concept of the self, in which individuals were seen as more important than the group. Women were more concerned with humanity, a very modern way of thinking that continues today, Mazzonis said.

Given Saint Angela’s importance during a time that helped shape the modern world, one has to wonder why she isn’t better known among the saints. Mazzonis said it is because she was considered more for works of charity and education, rather than seen as the profound thinker that she was. Perhaps if she had accepted the pope’s request to move her ministry to Rome, she may have attained greater notoriety, but the humble Saint Angela was more interested in serving God in Brescia, Italy, he said.

“Angela’s writings were more interested in the salvation of souls,” Mazzonis said. “To her, poverty meant to place all your wealth in God alone.”

Mazzonis’ talks: