The Institute of the Ursuline Sisters of the Immaculate Virgin Mary was founded in Gandino (Bergamo, Italy) on 3rd December 1818 by the parish priest don Francesco della Madonna (1771 - 1846) together with eleven young women from Bergamo and from Milan.
As he was very attentive to the parish pastoral needs, the founder had identified women's education as the key element for the Christian reform of society, in the troublesome historic contest of the Restoration after the Napoleonic wars. Don Francesco considered the education of new generations as an important ecclesiastical mission, for which a special vocation is requested as well as a complete dedication of one's life to God. For this reason he had the idea of a new religious congregation of Ursuline educators, with a life in common and simple vows, without seclusion.
In May 1820 the government of Lombard-Venetian reign approved of the community in Gandino as a "house for women's education", committed to the popular education of over 200 girls from the village and of about ten boarding girls from Seriana Valley and Cavallina Valley.
But the project of the foundation was achieved only in part, because the group in Gandino aimed at becoming a religious congregation. After some contacts with the Marquise Maddalena from Canossa, who founded the Daughters of Charity, Don Francesco della Madonna and the teachers chose Saint Angela Merici’s rule, which was already followed by the Ursulines in Clusone suppressed in 1810. From one of them, Teresa Uccelli, Don Francesco borrowed the most important texts to give the new institute in Gandino the Saint Angela Merici’s charismatic identity: the Rule and the Ceremonial of the congregation in Brescia (1667); some of Saint Angela Merici’s biographies (1774, 1778); the Chronicles of the Ursulines in France (1705 translation) which interpret Saint Ursula’s and Saint Angela’s lives with education suggestions and characterize many biographic profiles of some Ursulines who were teachers.
Saint Ursula’s boarding school in Gandino had Bergamo Bishop Pietro Mola’s support in 1823, but it was canonically erected later, on 19th July 1858, by Bishop Pietro Luigi Speranza and called “Ursulines Virgins… under the Immaculate Virgin Mary’ protection”.
During the first 70 years the communities slowly spread in Bergamo diocese. After the Pope’s approval on 15th August 1909, the diffusion of the institute started in other Italian regions and in various countries, with a maximum of 110 communities and 700 sisters.
Today the Ursulines of the Immaculate Virgin Mary are about 400 spread in Italy, Poland, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Argentina and Brazil. They live their educative mission in culturally different contests and ways, synergistically working with the ecclesiastic and civil reality of the area.
Today the communities are involved in various education actions: from nursery school to secondary school, in university colleges, in family Homes and orphanages, in centres for women’s promotion, cooperating with the pastoral of the parish and of the diocese especially in the Christian forming of children, teenagers and young adults. They are also present in surgeries, small hospitals, Homes for Elderly People; in mission countries they visit villages for catechesis and liturgic animation, assistance to ill and poor people.
Particular attention is given to the permanent forming of sisters and lay cooperators , to personally accompany young people and mothers, to the dialogue among religions and to cultural integration, always following God’s word embodied in the Charism, according to the rules established by the Church, mother and teacher. Educative Marian – Merician Charisma
The Charisma of the Ursulines of the Immaculate Virgin Mary can be summed up in these three characteristics:
1. Educative: which means taking care of the person’s growth in every step of his/her life, so that he/she can meet Christ, the New Man, and find the achievement of his/her life in Him. The founder has deeply experienced in his heart Jesus’ Compassion for puzzled and tired crowds (Mt 9,36), in particular for the girls’ condition in his time, when they were denied human and Christian forming. In the foundation of the Institute he confided women’s education to Ursulines daughters as a strategy to renew the family and the society.
2. Marian: the Immaculate Mary, all beautiful because inhabited by God since the first moment of her life, women of “yes” in the Annunciation, is the model to identify with for the Ursuline teacher, who confides in Her offering her heart and who promises to be Mary in the Church. In her educative mission she proposed the Immaculate Mary to today’s girls and women, as a mother to whom to confide and as a feminine model of holiness.
3. Merician: together with the founder, the first sisters chose Saint Angela Merici’s Rule because her spirituality is particularly suitable to women consecrated to God as true “brides of God” and “mothers” who follow the pedagogy of love in the educative mission. They are called Ursulines because Saint Angela wanted to dedicate her congregation to Saint Ursula, Breton martyr of IIIrd and IVth century in Cologne (Germany), who shows the great measure of love, as far as the total gift of her life, with her martyrdom.