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Saint of the week

The saint who dyed her hair in soot

St Angela Merici (January 27) was beatified in 1768

By on Friday, 24 January 2014

St Angela’s life was shaped by dramatic visions, including one of her sister in heaven

St Angela’s life was shaped by dramatic visions, including one of her sister in heaven

Born in 1474 in Desenzano del Gardo, a small town by Lake Garda in Lombardy, Angela and her older sister Giana Maria were orphaned when Angela was just 10. They went to live with their uncle and further tragedy followed when Giana suddenly died without receiving the last sacraments. This led her sister to join the lay Third Order of Francis so that she could pray for her sister, and Angela received a vision in which her sister was in heaven in the company of the saints.

Famed for her beauty, Angela responded to her many admiring glances by dying her hair in soot. When her uncle died she returned back to Lake Garda, where she dedicated her time to teaching girls in her home, which she turned into a school. In that era it was rare for women to receive an education unless they were wealthy. The best educated women – nuns – were cloistered and so had little influence on many of the poor women who were growing up uneducated and largely ignorant of religion.

Angela’s next vision told her to found an association of virgins who would devote their lives to the religious training of young girls. She then started a second school in nearby Brescia.

When she was 50 she travelled to the Holy Land but was blinded en route in Crete, before continuing on to Jerusalem, where her sight was restored in front of a crucifix. The following year, a Jubilee year, she travelled to Rome, where Clement VII invited her to stay. But she soon returned to Brescia, uncomfortable with fame in the big city.

The Company of St Ursula, inspired by her early vision, was founded on November 25 1535 with 12 young women teaching in Brescia. The women lived in the secular world but were consecrated to God, thus influencing later secular orders.

Angela died five years later, by which time there were 24 branches of the order, and was buried in Brescia, near the remains of the martyrs of that city. There they remained in peace for four centuries until Allied bombing during the Second World War flattened the church in March 1945.

Angela was beatified in 1768 and canonised in 1807, by Pius VII. Her feast day was added to the Roman Calendar in 1861.