As you walk onto the Bellarmine Quad between the Wyatt Center for the Arts and Frazier Hall, the first thing you’ll encounter is the bronze sculpture of a woman, her left hand outstretched. This is St. Angela Merici, and her story is an intrinsic part of Bellarmine’s history.
Angela Merici, born in the late 15th century to a farming family in Desenzano del Garda, Italy, was a woman of great conviction. Orphaned at a young age and raised by an uncle, she paid special attention to the fates of other young women. Most had little to no education, as schooling was reserved for nuns and the rich. So she converted her own home into a school for girls, then started a second school in the neighboring town of Brescia.
In 1525, at the age of 56, she traveled to Rome, where Pope Clement VII was so impressed with her that he invited her to remain in the city and take over a religious order of nurses. But Angela turned him down. Her calling, she believed, was the education of women and practical service in the real world.
Ten years later, she and 12 young women who were working in her schools founded the Company of Saint Ursula, named for the patroness of medieval universities. The Ursulines would become the first group of women religious to work outside of a cloister, and the first teaching order of women.
Angela, who died in 1540, was canonized a saint in 1807, and the Ursuline Sisters’ mission continued to spread around the world. The Ursulines began their ministry in Kentucky in 1858 when three sisters from Germany answered a call to teach in Louisville. In 1938, the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville established Ursuline College as a Catholic college for women. And 30 years after that, in 1968, the all-female Ursuline College merged with the all-male Bellarmine College to form an independent and coeducational institution that is known today as Bellarmine University.
One of the faculty members who moved from Ursuline to Bellarmine was artist and art professor Bob Lockhart. On the Ursuline campus, he had created a sculpture of St. Angela, whom he cast in bronze as “a very, very strong Italian woman, a woman of the fields.” Rather than picture her as a young girl, he said, “I wanted to portray this woman who had the strength and the backbone to found this Order and have this kind of fervent ability to lead a group of women … a woman who would have been mature enough to face what she needed to face.” But he also wanted this strong woman to be “a welcoming, inviting presence,” so he gave her the outstretched hand.
In the early 2000s, wanting to honor its Ursuline heritage in a tangible way, Bellarmine University administrators decided to place a second casting of Mr. Lockhart’s St. Angela sculpture on campus. To cover the cost, they approached Robert Bailey, a 1958 Bellarmine graduate in business administration and former member of the Alumni Board of Directors, and asked whether he would sponsor the casting in memory of his wife, Patricia Jean Stauble Bailey, a 1953 Ursuline College graduate who had died in April 2002. He readily agreed.
Mrs. Bailey had majored in education and taught for a year before the couple married in 1954. In addition to her Ursuline College tie, her first cousin, Sarah Stauble, had been president of the Order for six years. “So there was quite a bit of connection,” Mr. Bailey said.
The cost of the second bronze casting was $10,000. A few days after Mr. Bailey spoke with a development officer, a bank statement with his wife’s name on it arrived in the mail. “I thought all of Pat’s accounts had been closed out,” he said, but apparently, one remained. He opened the statement and looked at the amount: It was $10,000.
“One other kind of strange thing happened,” Mr. Bailey said. The public dedication of the sculpture had originally been scheduled for March 2003. “Then President McGowan called and said, ‘Would you mind changing it to April?’” he said. The sculpture was dedicated on April 16, 2003 – exactly one year after Mrs. Bailey passed away.
A season ticketholder for Bellarmine basketball, Mr. Bailey still visits St. Angela now and then when he is on campus. And his granddaughter Sarah Bailey ’09/DPT ’10 (he and his wife had six children and 12 grandchildren) took it upon herself to be a caretaker for the sculpture when she was a student, he said, washing it off and removing items that other students sometimes place in St. Angela’s hand – including coins for luck when they have a big test.
“They also rub her toe,” he said. “Her toe is all shiny.”
Nearly 500 years after St. Angela Merici founded an Order dedicated to education, her sculpture continues to welcome and inspire both women and men to Bellarmine University and to be an integral part of campus culture.
“This sculpture honors all Ursuline Sisters who have played a role in shaping the Catholic values and educational excellence of Bellarmine University,” reads the plaque on its base. “The University is grateful to the Ursuline Sisters and proud of our heritage.”
Carla Carlton | email@example.com