Beyond our founding, the Ursuline Sisters have given Brescia rich roots from which to draw and to nurture our community and students in our development and growth. We look to their foundress, Angela Merici. It was she, who—with her companions—founded the Order of St. Ursula, those whom we call the Ursuline Sisters. And it was our Ursuline Sisters who responded to a call from Bishop Michael Fallon of the Diocese of London to found a university for women just one year after women received the right to vote federally in Canada, when the Sisters had not a degree between them. Our core Ursuline and Brescia values of wisdom, justice, and compassion have been passed to us through generations, have informed our actions, and have been brought to life in the person and in the community from the day of our founding.
Angela Merici brought women out into the community to meet the needs of the time—a time that was war-torn and filled with religious and political dissent spreading throughout the world—a time that was not unlike our own. It was a new way of being for women in the world and through these women we have the boldness of educated, faithful, articulate voice. The Ursuline way brings together action and contemplation with a focus on community, with a passion about justice for the marginalized and the earth.
In the early twentieth century, the Ursuline Sisters expanded from France to Canada, through our region in southwestern Ontario establishing houses and staffing elementary, secondary and post-secondary educational institutions and music schools. Along with other communities of religious women, they were leaders in building up of the Catholic school system. The ground-breaking work of the Ursulines led to the establishment of Brescia University College, in 1919.
At that time there were still relatively few women seeking a university education, but demand was growing. The Ursulines were recognized for their experience in women’s education and were eager to expand their horizons to include university education. Working collaboratively with Bishop Michael Francis Fallon and The University of Western Ontario, an affiliation agreement was shaped that allowed Brescia Hall to register women as students who would receive their university degrees from Western.
The first class at Brescia consisted of seven young women who paid $50 each for tuition. For the first few years the University was located in a converted house downtown, near Victoria Park. Mother Clare Gaukler, the Ursuline Superior General, purchased land near the new Western location and construction on what was to become Ursuline Hall began in 1923. The University’s new site was ready for classes and residence in the fall of 1925.
From an early date diversity was valued at Brescia and students were welcomed from the Caribbean, from Latin America and from Asia. These international students found that their cultural and faith traditions were respected. The Ursulines went to great lengths to ensure that no deserving young woman was denied an education because her family could not afford the tuition. A variety of scholarships, bursaries, and employment opportunities were provided to help students fund their education.
The Ursulines continue to support important ventures in justice and peace by joining forces with other religious communities, justice organizations and concerned citizens across the globe. Wherever the Ursulines live, they involve themselves in local, national and global issues and concerns.
Although Ursulines no longer occupy formal teaching positions at Brescia, their legacy lives on in our mission, vision and values. Though there may be smaller numbers in the Ursuline community that same pilgrim spirit that characterized Angela Merici and so many other women of great heart, still energizes the Ursulines and all those who choose to walk alongside. The Ursulines continue to be engaged, committed and passionate about justice for those who are marginalized, for women and all who are oppressed. The Ursulines are committed to environmental initiatives, and the beautiful Villa Angela home in Chatham is a visible testimony to environmental responsibility. Villa Angela was constructed to create the smallest possible ecological footprint and was awarded Gold Status on its LEED certification, indicating the Ursulines incorporated the best features of environmental design in the construction process. To remind us of our Ursuline founding and commitment to the environment, repurposed brick from the St. James Merici Wing was included as beautiful walls in Brescia’s new Academic Pavilion.
Inspired and supported by the courageous women who have gone before us, especially by St. Angela who promised to be in our midst, the Ursulines (continue) to discern the call of the Spirit and to respond with generous and grateful hearts. As Brescia moves into our next century the Ursuline legacy is alive in us and in our commitment to educating future women leaders with wisdom, justice and compassion.
To learn more about the Ursuline Sisters of Chatham, visit: ursulines.org.