The Order of Saint Ursula embraces many “firsts” among the Church’s early female religious orders, two of these being the first teaching order in the world and having the first “rule” written by a woman. But Italian born founder Angela Merici (c. 1470 – 1540) instilled in her “Company of St. Ursula” much more than the usual Evangelical Counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. She encouraged her Sisters to develop a deep spirituality and to abide by the inspiration and counsel of the Holy Spirit. “Our spirituality is that of a deep listening presence,” says Sister Julie Hickey, OSU, Spiritual Care Developer at Haven for Hope in downtown San Antonio. Mother Angela (now St. Angela, canonized in 1807) named the order for St. Ursula, a legendary “princess warrior,” martyr, and patron saint of orphans and female students.
The Ursulines began sending missionaries around the globe, with the goal of carrying the name and love of Christ and to elevate the dignity of women in the various cultures they encountered. They first arrived in North America (Canada) in 1639, and over the ensuing years established schools in the States. In 1851, three Sisters from the Galveston community joined with a group of Ursuline Sisters from New Orleans and arrived in San Antonio. Here they opened the Ursuline Academy, the first girls’ school in the city. Ursuline Academy was initially built on what is now Navarro Street in downtown San Antonio. In 1962, the school moved to Vance Jackson Road. It functioned as a school of excellence under the Ursuline Sisters until it closed in 1992.
Today, in addition to Sister Julie Hickey, three other Ursuline Sisters live, work, and minister in San Antonio. Sister Madeline Kelly taught art and religion at Ursuline Academy; in addition to her work in adult faith formation at St. Brigid Church, she paints traditional icons and also helps with the planning of a faith historical museum at St. Paul Church. Sister Karen Schwane, a former Spanish teacher at Ursuline Academy and director of Religious Education at St. Timothy, stays busy traveling from San Antonio to Laredo where she is helping a group of alumnae prepares for the 150th anniversary of Ursuline Sisters’ arrival in that city. Sister Elizabeth Hatzenbuehler, who formerly taught at St. Gerard School, is a valued volunteer at Haven for Hope, where she facilitates adult coloring sessions for homeless who find temporary refuge there. “It’s a really simple thing, but it seems to make (their) life a little easier,” she said.
The San Antonio People of Faith Historical Museum is working on a display that highlights the Ursuline Sisters’ contribution to our city. If you are a Ursuline alumna and would like to be notified of upcoming Ursuline-related events and/or if you have photos or other tangible memories of these remarkable Sisters that you would like to contribute to the museum, call Martha Gonzales at (210) 733-7152.