Angela Merici or de Merici and her older sisters were left orphans when Angela was about fifteen years old. They went to live with an uncle. Shortly thereafter, her older sister died quite unexpectedly. Angela devoted many hours of prayer praying that her sister had been accepted in heaven despite the fact that she had died without the solace of the sacraments. She received an assurance that her sister was in heaven in the company of the saints. At this time she joined the Third Order of St. Francis and dedicated her life to God.
As she grew into a woman, her beauty, particularly that of her hair drew many admirers. In order to push them away, she would dye her hair with soot from the hearth. After a few more years, her uncle died so she returned to her home and lived with her brothers. A piece of the property was given to her in lieu of her dowry. At this time she received a vision which told her that she was destined to found a religious order which would devote itself to the education of young girls.
On 25 November 1535, Merici gathered with 12 young women who had joined in her work in a small house in Brescia near the Church of St. Afra, where together they committed themselves in the founding of the Company of St Ursula, placed under the protection of the patroness of medieval universities. Her goal was to elevate family life through the Christian education of future wives and mothers. Four years later the group had grown to 28. Merici taught her companions to be consecrated to God and dedicated to the service of their neighbor, but to remain in the world, teaching the girls of their own neighborhood, and to practice a religious form of life in their own homes. The members wore no special habit and took no formal religious vows. Merici wrote a Rule of Life for the group, which specified the practice of celibacy, poverty and obedience in their own homes. The Ursulines opened orphanages and schools. On 18 March 1537, she was elected "Mother and Mistress" of the group. The Rule she had written was approved in 1544 by Pope Paul III.
When Merici died in Brescia on 27 January, 1540, there were 24 communities of the Company of St. Ursula serving the Church through the region. Her body was clothed in the habit of a Franciscan tertiary and was interred in the Church of St. Afra. Today the Ursuline community is a world wide religious community.
The Third Order of St. Francis, known today as the Order of Secular Franciscans, is a community of Catholic men and women in the world who seek to pattern their lives after Christ in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi. Secular Franciscans are tertiaries, or members of the Third Order of St. Francis founded by St. Francis of Assisi 800 years ago. Originally known as the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, the Order is open to any Catholic not bound by religious vows to another religious order and is made up of both the laity (men and women non-clergy) and secular clergy (deacons, priests, and bishops). Although Secular Franciscans make a public profession, they are not bound by public vows as are religious living in community. The Third Order Regular (TOR), which grew out of the Third Order Secular, do make religious vows and live in community. Because the Order belongs to the spiritual family of the Franciscan movements, the Holy See has entrusted its pastoral care and spiritual assistance to the Franciscan First Order (Order of Friars Minor) and Franciscan Third Order Regular (TOR), which belong to the same spiritual family.
At least 34 Secular Franciscans have been canonized, and another 31 have been beatified. Secular Franciscans have also been included in groups of martyrs, such as the Martyrs of China and Japan. Some nine popes have been Secular Franciscans, including Pope St. John XXIII.