The College of New Rochelle Gill Library 


Ursulines Education 
An Exhibit by Martha Counihan, O.S.U Archivist
Online adaptation by Susan Acampora 

 


 

To commemorate a recent conference held on campus for Ursuline educators, a book exhibit is available in the lobby of Gill Library. The exhibit includes histories of Ursuline education as well as histories of several American Ursuline foundations.

St. Angela Merici (c 1470-1540), founder of the Ursulines knew the value of books. As a child, her father’s reading of the Lives of the Saints inspired her, especially the account of the martyrdom of St. Ursula and her companions. Printing had been invented just a century before and it became the iPhone of Europe. In 1535, Angela founded a Company of young women who eventually became called “Ursulines” As the vowed women moved into France in the 1590’s, they became cloistered. To support themselves, they began schools to educate girls and young women. Thus, “Ursuline Education” came into being.

In 1639, a French widow, Marie of the Incarnation Guyart Martin arrived in the Quebec colony of the New World bringing education for girls with her. Her school educated Native American girls as well as daughters of the colonists. In 1727, other French Ursulines agreed to staff a hospital in New Orleans so they could also begin schools for the female colonists, Native Americans and slaves. They brought with them a valuable handbook of education, the Reglements (1652), three volumes of  Ursuline educational philosophy and practice. The Reglements stressed St. Angela’s insistence on treating young women with kindness and fairness. Included in the exhibit is a facsimile of a letter written to the Ursulines by President Thomas Jefferson soon after the Louisiana Purchase of 1802. He assured them that the US government would not confiscate their New Orleans school. Jefferson had enrolled his daughter in a convent school when he was envoy to France. She was happy there and told her father that she would like to become a Catholic—and a nun.  Jefferson sent her home immediately!

Ursulines in Ireland published the Ursuline Manual, a book of devotions and prayers that was also printed in the US. The College of New Rochelle had over fourteen different editions of this popular book for young women. The arrival of many Irish Catholics to the eastern United States in the first half of the Nineteenth century resulted in an upswing of nativism, prejudice against foreigners. Protestant Americans feared that Catholics were controlled by a foreign power, the Pope of Rome and increasing numbers of foreigners created fears of loss of Americans’ dearly won independence.   Anti-Catholic literature fanned the flames of fear and in 1840, the Ursuline Convent school outside Boston was torched by an anti-Catholic crowd. Ironically, most of the pupils were Protestant girls whose parents wanted their daughters to learn French, music, and good manners. The State of Massachusetts publicly condemned this act of arson and violence.

Immigration populated the Eastern and central parts of the US with huge numbers of Irish, German, and other European groups, many of whom were Catholics. The American Catholic bishops were concerned about preserving the faith of immigrants and saw the establishment of a school system parallel to the American public school system as a solution. Recruits of teaching Sisters from Europe flowed across the Atlantic to found schools. In 1848, German-speaking Ursulines arrived in St. Louis, Mo. to begin a school for German immigrant children.  In 1855, their leader, Mother Magdalen Stehlin came to the Bronx, then a rural suburb of New York City. There she founded the Ursuline convent that had a private girls’ school and a school for non-tuition paying pupils. Although she came to a German-speaking neighborhood, soon most of the pupils and the women who wanted to become Ursulines were Irish or Irish American. The Ursuline Convent of East Morrisania moved in 1892 to the Bedford Park area of the Bronx. The school was re-named the Academy of Mt. St. Ursula.

In 1876, Bronx Ursulines were asked to staff a parochial school for girls in lower Manhattan, at St. Teresa’s parish. They also established a girls’ academy and then, teacher-training courses. Mother Irene Gill, one of the St. Teresa’s Ursulines saw the value of educating girls beyond high school. It would be she who founded the College of New Rochelle in 1904. The St. Teresa’s Ursulines came to New Rochelle in 1896 and started a school; a year later they purchased Leland Castle, once the home of a wealthy hotel magnate. With them they brought the core of Angela Merici’s Rule, the Reglements, and centuries of educational practices which they had adjusted to American principles.

Ursulines world-wide met in Rome in 1900. Many voted to form an international group, the Ursulines of the Roman Union. The Bronx and New Rochelle Ursulines voted to join the new Roman Union. Other Ursuline groups in the United States opted to remain independent. The French serial publication, Echo de St. Ursule, first printed in the 1890’s and circulated around the world, gave Ursulines histories, news of various Ursuline groups, and educational ideas that were being used in France. It was a useful communication tool.

In 1926, the leadership of the Roman Union Ursulines was given to Mother Marie de St. Jean Martin, a woman of vision and faith in the education of girls and women.  In 1940, she gave a six week workshop at the College of New Rochelle for Ursuline teachers and administrators from all parts of the United States; the lectures were published in 1946, the Ursuline Method of Education. It became the handbook of Ursuline education for decades. It was she who gave the motto, “Serviam—I will serve” to Ursuline students.

Vatican II has brought great changes in the Catholic Church in a global world that has also experienced enormous change. Ursuline schools have mostly lay teachers and administration. The spirit of Angela Merici, however, continues to imbue Ursuline students world- wide with the spirit of Serviam and the high ideals of human respect.

By: Martha Counihan, osu                                 

Archivist/Special Collections Librarian

Digitization by: Susan Acampora  Systems Librarian