She was born on 17th June 1610 in the noble family of Morellos, in Rappalo, the delightful little town situated on the eastern part of Italy. She was a specially chosen soul to carry out great works in the contemporary society in which she lived. Her parents – Nicolo Morello and Lady Lavinia had eleven children and Brigida was the 6th one. They were brought up in the holy fear of God and the practice of virtues. Brigida’s grandparents left lasting imprints in her and their teachings went deep into her mind laying the foundation for her greatness at the early age in her life. Brigida was endowed with grace, kindness and charity. She grew up as a woman of sensitive heart and was in touch with the realities of the world.
When she was not yet 12 years old she learnt that poor are the friends of God and helped them generously. Brigida’s dream of consecrated life in a convent took shape after undergoing numerous obstacles due to oppositions and lack of funds. Brigida succeeded to begin the work of the new foundation gradually. Her dream was realized on 17th February 1649 and founded the Congregation of the Ursulines of Mary Immaculate (UMI) under the patronship of St. Ursula with the help of many collaborators. She with other five young women received the religious habit and began to live in a house in Piacenza, Italy, surrendering herself totally to God by the evangelical counsels and responding to God’s will. That was the beginning of the Ursuline Sisters of Mary Immaculate.
It was the middle of the 17th century when the Ursuline family took its shape. The inspiration behind the foundation, expressed in the goal of the Institute is, “God’s glory and the good of the neighbor”. At the very start, she was struck by a malignant illness which confined her completely to bed. She guided the Congregation from her bed of pain for 24 years.
Brigida wrote down the rules and regulations for her dear Congregation. Two weeks before her death she gathered her loving sisters and spoke to them her last words of instructions. She commended herself into the hands of the Almighty on September 3rd, 1679. She could say with St. Paul – “I have run the race, I am ready Lord.” Death is a beautiful experience for those who live close to God.
Blessed Brigida as an individual
Blessed Brigida was a woman of virtues and a role model in her times. She was eminently a contemplative and mystic soul who advanced to great heights of perfection through an intense prayer life and intimate union with God.
She was a woman of great faith. She could see the holy will of God in everything what happened in and around her life. “God is our Father and he will never abandon us.” This absolute certainty of being loved by God as a daughter, gratuitously, unconditionally, led her to love unconditionally those who lived near her.
Even though less known, she belongs to the host of great mystics found in plenty in Europe during the 16th & 17th centuries. It was her desire to remain hidden.
She had a special concern for women, especially for the young ones, contrary to the custom of her times. Hers was an effort to solve the problem at the root as she herself said: “for the benefit of the city and of many young people”, responding thus to a real need of the church and of the people of her time. That was her mission.
The promotion of women and recognition of their dignity was one of her concerns at that age. She points to us the crucified women of today. One of our apostolates is working for the empowerment of women.
Her capacity to see the needs of the people around her, came from her deep prayer life and from a profound personal relationship with God. Infact, contemplating the world with the heart of Christ, she could see the reality with the eye of Jesus who had exhorted her to go out. The decision to start the Institute for the education of young girls whom she card for as a mother and teacher, was a direct result of that admonition.
She had been ahead of her times by giving great importance to the character formation – to being rather than doing. She stressed that one edifies by working and knowing to keep silence. She further stated – the profit of the students is not due to the words of the teacher but to her example.
Several occasions Blessed Brigida instructed her daughters to cultivate and possess charity and spiritual joy – to keep our conscience pure possessing God’s grace, from being in communion with him and with one another. It is the essence of our religious life as Ursulines of Mary Immaculate.
Blessed Brigida as a Foundress
Her teachings were left in writing as a precious heritage for those who would follow her through the centuries under the Ursuline banner. When unfolding this treasured gift so unique to our Foundress, we discover some of the striking characteristics of her spirituality and charism.
Some of the Outstanding Characteristics of Blessed Brigida’s Spirituality
Intimacy with God
First and foremost we see her deep personal familiarity and intimacy with God, a relationship which prove to be radically transforming experience. It transformed her life irreversibly, renewing it with the freshness of God’s Spirit, enabling her to surrender herself totally to God and his will. Her one desire was that God might enable her to do his will.
- Call to Holiness
As in the case of all the prophets in the Bible, the holiness and glory of God took possession of Brigida’s spirit bringing her to a new awareness of human lowliness. This enormous abyss between God’s sovereign holiness and human worthlessness, insignificance and sinfulness, overwhelmed Brigida, but God’s initiative makes her worthy of her vocation as God’s prophet. Our primary prophetic mission is to be prophets of holiness.
When a religious is consecrated through the profession of vows, she entrusts herself to the Institute and the institute in turn entrust itself to her. With this offering the religious places herself in the hands of the Congregation – she trusts herself to its history of holiness as well as to its weaknesses. From that moment the holiness of the institute will depend also on her.
Brigida’s life is marked by an unshakable trust in God and total dependence on Divine Providence. She was attentive to the movement of the spirit that made her, partner with God in taking up the cause of the needy. She was aware and attuned to the signs of her time.
Passionately in love with God, eager to do his will and zealous for the welfare of the neighbour Brigida hears God’s call to leave the familiar, trodden path of silent intimacy and communion with him in solitude of her room to step out into the unfamiliar, unusual and nearly impossible life of active religious unheard of those days. “Come out of your solitude and help souls” was all that she has been told in the vision.
Desire for suffering
She was able to ask for more suffering in order to identify herself with Jesus in His passion and death – the means to reach God and the key to understand human suffering.
Contemplative in action
Her constant union with the Lord overflows into action on behalf of her neighbour and finds concrete expression in the starting of the house of St. Ursula where young girls will be taken care with love and affection and will be given the essential formation in the art of living. This is the example she sets before us that personal communion with God overflows into action in favour of the needy.
It is this dimension that makes Brigida a Prophetess par excellence. She was able to transmit to the disciples, her daughters, the content of the fundamental inspiration that she received from God.
Charism of the Congregation
To belong only and wholly to God in perfect purity of heart, identified with Christ crucified, at the service of the church.
The charism of the Institute can be viewed in a triple form – (i) contemplation as a way of life; (ii) fidelity to convictions; (iii) universality of apostolic objectives.
Purity of heart
The charism of our Foundress has for its basis true charity: perfect love of God and neighbour. And she set this as the end of the Institute she founded. This love of God was expressed by her in total gift of self with perfect abandonment6 to his will in everything. When the soul is possessed of such love, it can have no other desire or aspiration than God himself. All human ambitions and desire to please others are supplanted by the sole longing to be in union with God, thus attaining purity of heart and conscience.
Such a single-hearted devotion or purity of conscience cannot be conceived of apart from prayer – prayer that is continuous and fervent. Blessed Brigida was blessed with high degree of contemplation. She exhorts her daughters to acquire and grow in this gift. Rather she assigns contemplation as a way of life for her daughters. This is a life of union with God, a union so intense that the soul is wholly taken up with God and is able to attend to the most common duties of day today life, even material concerns. In Blessed Brigida, contemplation resulted in deep interior life of detachment, surrender, humility, kindness, love of the crucified and the practice of strict enclosure of the convent as it was a semi cloistered congregation in its initial stages.
Identification with Christ Crucified
The spiritual ascent of Blessed Brigida began with the contemplation of Christ Crucified, under the direction of the Franciscan friars. Her spiritual identification with the crucified Lord through prolonged meditations on his passion and death, later translated itself into a living reality in her own body, through a painful and protracted illness that chained her to bed for 24 years.
She saw Christ Crucified also in the suffering brothren around her and her love for the crucified Lord urged her to action through dedicated and selfless service to these ailing members. Thus her apostolic ardor was an outcome of her contemplation of and identification with the crucified.
The gift of charism peculiar to her found expression in service, a service which was in response to the pressing need of her time, that is, the education and training of young girls in faith and moral principles so as to prepare them for their future role of wife and mother. This in essence is the legacy of charism left to us by Blessed Brigida to the sisters of her congregation and in which they share their very belonging to the Institute. Their fidelity to the charism renders it dynamic and fruitful.
Though she lived in the seventeenth century and the foundation dates back to that epoch, so different from our own time, the Foundational Charism of the Institute contained possibilities for ministry that went far beyond the limits of time and space. In other words, any and every form of ministry or apostolate can serve as effective means of realizing the end of the Institute, provided the motivating force behind our every action is the ‘Good of the neighbor’. Hence there is constant need for reinterpreting and revitalizing the charism in the light of the signs of the times, recognizing that the Institute was founded in a peculiar historical context.
As the church invites us to renew and adapt our religious life in the light of the mission and service required of us today, we, the Ursulines of Mary Immaculate take us relevant ministries according to the signs of the time and commit ourselves to this task personally and collectively. This searching for and updating our charism presupposes openness to the spirit allowing ourselves to be penetrated by God’s light and wisdom like Blessed Brigida. On our path of trial, we the daughters of Blessed Brigida strive to proceed with open heart and joy to help everyone to grow, to suffer and to hope in a better world which we would have helped to create.
Over the three hundred and sixty six years the congregation made progressive march. It branched out into mission lands, India, Brazil and Africa. In 1934, five Italian pioneers swam against the wind and the waves, faced all the odds and obstacles, endured untold deprivations and inconveniences, with a clear vision which called them for a mission, reached at Calicut, Kerala, and began their missionary activities on November 12th, 1934. The institute was thus inserted into the fabric of the church in India. Since then the Congregation has steadily grown in Italy and India, organized into five Provinces, each with its own mission branches in the African Continent as well as a delegation in Brazil.