Sisters of Saint Ursula trace their origins to the dream of a young French
woman who was born in 1567 in Dijon, France. Anne de Xainctonge was the
eldest child of a French parliamentarian. Despite the fact that she was
not the son he had hoped for, he gave her the education that a male would
have had. That incomparable gift, coupled with the location of the family
home next to a Jesuit school for boys, stirred young Anne's heart.
Her parents were supportive,
but her father insisted that whatever she might do must be done in her
native city of Dijon where he had both influence and friends to speed the
project. Anne's inner voice was urging her to go to Dole, a city only forty
miles distant, but light years away from the royalist politics of her native
Dijon. Dole was under Spanish auspices in a proudly independent Franche-Comté
(a free county). It was also a university city with an abiding interest
In 1596, Anne left Dijon
to go to Dole. Upon her arrival there, she found a group of young women
who had been praying for guidance in their desire to instruct girls and
women. God's call to Anne and their yearning began to come together, but
not without difficulty.
School teaching was not considered
a respectable occupation in the late 16th century. Added to this was Anne's
determination to form a religious community, a group of women who would
be bound by vows but who would not be cloistered. She felt that this freedom
to visit the sick and afflicted, to accompany their students to the parish
church, to seek spiritual direction, was an important component of her
had just reimposed the cloister as the only form of religious life to whch
women could aspire. Anne and her first companions refused to cloister,
and founded the first non-cloistered women's religious community.
Guided by her Jesuit counselors,
Anne and her first companions established themselves as a religious community
on June 16, 1606. They were indeed pioneers, since, in addition to their
choice of a teaching mission for women and girls, and their rejection of
the cloister, they added a third characteristic. Anne had no desire for
a religious habit that would set them apart from the women they had chosen
to serve. She and her companions adopted the simple black dress of the
Spanish widows everywhere visible in the region of Dole.
The work that they desired
to do was desperately needed in the church of their day. Anne and her Sisters
worked and reworked their rule of life, borrowing heavily from the Rule
of St. Ignatius for the Jesuits. By the time of Anne's death in 1621 it
was obvious that the charity, piety and good example of the Sisters were
responding to a needed ministry in both France and in Switzerland.
Each convent established
was more or less independent since Rome would not permit congregations
of women to have a central government. However, the Sisters of Anne de
Xainctonge "loaned" Sisters from house to house, and a central novitiate
assured a common formation.
French Revolution would change the face of all religious institutions.
In 1790 all members of religious communities were "laicized" and their
houses were closed. The Sisters were dispersed, but they kept alive the
hope of refoundation when the political climate would change. By the first
decades of the 19th century they were once again setting up ministries
Given the improvements in
transportation and the growth in women's religious communities, from this
time on each motherhouse kept its daughter houses attached. A pattern begins
to develop. Houses were opened in France from Dole and Tours; in Switzerland
from Fribourg, Sion and Brig; and in Germany from Villingen and Freibourg.
At the beginning of the 20th
century, an anti-clerical French government once again closed all religious
institutions and expelled thousands of religious men and women. The Sisters
of St. Ursula of Tours found their way to New York in 1901, echoing the
words of Anne de Xainctonge: "The God whom I wish to serve is in all lands."