Saints for Our Times: Polish saint was dedicated to educating the poor
By Mary Lou Gibson
Many priests, bishops and popes have guided the Catholic Church through countless religious upheavals and national calamities over the centuries. In addition, the men and women in religious orders nurtured and strengthened the faith through their work with people in schools, hospitals, orphanages, homeless shelters and other institutions.
One such religious congregation that has served the poorest of the poor since the early 20th century is the Ursuline Sisters of the Heart of Jesus in Agony, also known as the Grey Ursulines because of their habits.
The foundress of the Grey Ursulines was Julia Maria Ledóchowska. She was born in Loosdorf, Austria, in 1865, into an old and distinguished Polish family. Matthew Bunson writes in “John Paul II’s Book of Saints” that the Ledóchowska family had long been hailed as the “cradle of faith and vocations.”
Julia was 21 when she entered the Ursuline convent in Kraków, Poland, in 1886, taking the name of Maria Ursula of Jesus.
Her father, Count Antoni Halka-Ledóchowska, had given her his blessing to enter the convent before he died in 1883.
Sister Maria Ursula spent the next 20 years teaching in girls’ schools. In 1904, she was elected as Mother Superior of the monastery. In Kraków, she opened a home for female university students, which was the first of many projects that Mother Ursula started. Sarah Gallick writes in “The Big Book of Women Saints” that her next assignment was in St. Petersburg, Russia. With the special blessing of Pope
Pius X, she went there to found St. Catharine House, a boarding school for Polish girls. There were many Catholic immigrants in St. Petersburg, then a cosmopolitan, industrial city.
Mother Ursula and the other sisters wore civil clothes in St. Petersburg because Roman Catholic institutions were illegal then in the Russian Empire. Catholic Online reports that the nuns were under constant surveillance by the secret police.
Finally, the government opposition to Catholics forced Mother Ursula to move to Russian-controlled Finland. In 1914, at the beginning of World
War I, Mother Ursula was expelled from Russia as an Austrian national. Catholic Online reports that she fled to neutral Sweden where she organized relief efforts for war victims and charitable programs for Polish people living in exile. She also founded a monthly Catholic newspaper and made extensive ecumenical contacts with Lutherans in Scandinavia.
It would be 1920 before she was able to move back to Poland with 40 other sisters who had joined her in her mission. This was the beginning of a growing Ursuline community with a distinctive charism and apostolate. Editor Dom Basil Watkins writes in “The Book of Saints” that Mother Ursula founded her own congregation, the Ursuline Sisters of the Heart of Jesus in Agony.
Her brother, Vladimir, helped to obtain Vatican approval of the new institute, which was to be “devoted to education and training of children and youth and service to the poorest and the oppressed among our brethren.”
According to Catholic Online, Mother Ursula and her nuns taught religious education in the factory town of Lodz between the two world wars. She organized a “Eucharistic Crusade” among the working class children and encouraged them to write to Pope Pius XI in honor of his 50th anniversary of his ordination.
Mother Ursula is described as a noted orator who frequently spoke before royalty and national leaders. She often defended the right of Polish independence.
She died in Rome in early May 1939 at the age of 74. She was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1983, and canonized in 2003. Her feast day is May 29. She is the patron of Sieradz, Poland.
Today, there are about 900 Grey Ursuline sisters working in Poland, Italy, France, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Finland, Germany, Tanzania, Belarus and the Ukraine.