St Urszula Ledóchowska (May 29)

Urszula Ledóchowska (1865-1939) was the founder of the Ursulines of the Agonising Heart of Jesus, or Grey Ursulines. The order is committed to the care of the poor and especially to their education.

Of aristocratic origin Urszula (christened Julia) was born at Loorsdorf, 40 miles west of Vienna, on an estate belonging to her Polish father. Her Swiss mother also came from a family of distinction in both secular and ecclesiastical life.

Their first three children (including Julia) all entered religious life. Julia’s elder sister, Maria Theresia, would found the Sodality of St Peter Claver and be beatified in 1975. Her younger brother, Vladimir, became provincial general of the Jesuits in Poland. In 1883 their father, Antoni Ledóchowsky, moved the family back to Poland, near Kraków, only to die of smallpox two years later. Thenceforward his brother, Cardinal Lebo Ledóchowski, assumed responsibility for the family.

Julia entered the Ursuline convent in Kraków in 1886, taking the name Urszula in religion. She would spend the next 21 years there. When women were permitted to study in Polish universities, she established a hall of residence for them, the first in the country.

In 1907, at the instance of Pope Pius X, Sister Urszula went to St Petersburg to take over a boarding school for Polish girls under a Tsarist regime notably hostile to Catholicism. Subsequently she started another house on the Gulf of Finland, where she strove to protect both Catholics and Protestants.

In 1914 the outbreak of the First World War forced Sister Urszula to move again, first to Stockholm and then to Denmark, where she founded a school for Scandanavian girls and organised aid for victims of the war.

With the return of peace, Urszula established a mother house for her Order at Pniewy in western Poland. In 1920 the Holy See approved this community as a separate congregation within the Ursuline family.

“It is not enough to pray ‘Thy Kingdom come’,” she told the Sisters. “You must work, so that the Kingdom of God will exist among us today.”

The new order opened several new houses within Poland, extending to Italy in 1928 and France in 1930. Urszula associated lay women with their work, inviting the young to give a year or two of their lives to relieving poverty in eastern Poland.

In 1928 she established the Generalate of the Congregation in Rome, starting a free boarding school there so that unprivileged children might be associated with the very heart of Christianity.

Pope John Paul II canonised Urszula in 2003. “We can all learn from her,” he pronounced, “how to build with Christ an ever more human world.” By that time there were some 900 Grey Ursulines working in 12 different countries.