The Blessed who was beatified on June 20, 1983, by Pope John Paul II in Poznan (Posen, Poland), Ursula Julia Maria Ledochowska, was born on April 17, 1865, in Loosdorf near Melk (Lower Austria), the daughter of Count Anton Walka-Ledochowski and Countess Josephine Salis-Zizers and the sister of Maria Theresia, who was two years older and later became the blessed foundress of the Sodality of Saint Peter Claver. One year afterward, in 1866, Julia Maria had a little brother, Vladimir, who would later be the saintly superior general of the Jesuits (from 1915 to 1942).
Julia Maria spent the first nine years of her life in Loosdorf. In 1874 the Count’s family resettled in Sankt Poelten, where Julia Maria together with her sisters Maria Theresia and Fanny received instruction at an English girls’ school (Institut der Englischen Fraeulein). During this time Julia Maria’s spiritual vocation was already taking shape.
Their father, who was ailing at the time, longed increasingly to be in his homeland. So it happened that in 1883 they moved to Poland, specifically to Lipnica in Galicia in the vicinity of Krakow (Krakau). Count Ledochowski died there two years later, in 1885, after he had given his blessing to Julia Maria’s religious vocation.
On August 18, 1886, Julia Maria entered the Ursuline convent in Krakow and received, with the habit, a religious name, the one belonging to Saint Ursula. On April 28, 1889, she took perpetual vows and was then assigned to educational work, instructing and training young girls. She performed her duties with great apostolic zeal. She established a boarding school for younger pupils and founded an association of the Children of Mary for the students.
Then from 1904 to 1907 Sister Ursula was prioress of the Ursuline convent in Krakow. In this capacity she founded in Saint Petersburg (Leningrad) a boarding school for Polish girls, because she had received a request to do so from the pastor of Saint Catherine’s Church, Monsignor Konstantin Budkiewicz. In 1907 Sister Ursula founded an Ursuline convent in Saint Petersburg and another in Sortavala in Finland. She entered into very thoroughgoing ecumenical contacts with the separated brethren there and translated the catechism, as well as a book of religious songs, into Finnish. For the poor fishermen and their families Sister Ursula founded a clinic that helped the sick at no cost.
On account of Sister Ursula’s apostolic activity, the Russian press and the Russian police soon were watching her every move; she was pressured and persecuted, and, finally, at the beginning of the First World War, she was expelled from Russia as an Austrian citizen. She fled for asylum to neutral Sweden but was able to keep in contact with her Sisters who had remained in Russia, and she encouraged them to persevere.
Once in Protestant Sweden, Sister Ursula soon resumed her contacts with the separated brethren, first and foremost with that great pioneer of ecumenism, the Lutheran archbishop Nathan Soederblom. In her apostolic zeal she cared especially for the Catholics who lived scattered throughout the diaspora, and for them she arranged various opportunities for group retreats and spiritual exercises in common. She also founded a Marian congregation in 1915 and started a monthly Catholic newspaper entitled ‘Solglimtar’, which, with the title changed to ‘Katolsk Kyrkotidning’, is still published in Uppsala.
Benedict XV, the “Pope of Peace”, appealed to all men of good will, according to their abilities, to come to the aid of the war victims who were in need; Sister Ursula responded with a large-scale charitable campaign for her fellow Poles living in exile. Accordingly she held more than eighty conferences in six different languages in Scandinavia during the war years (1915-1918), at which she spoke about the culture, literature, and history of the Polish people, as well as about their right to freedom, independence, and national autonomy. For the same purpose she founded various local committees that would send donations for material relief to the central committee in Switzerland, which was headed by the great Polish poet Henryk Sienkiewicz (d. 1916). Sister Ursula worked for this cause in Scandinavia with various intellectuals. In 1917 she published in Stockholm the book ‘Polonica’ in three languages. In the same year this uncommonly enterprising and dynamic religious woman went to Denmark in order to care for the Polish emigrants in this country. In 1918 she started a school of home economics and an orphanage for the Polish girls in Aalborg.
After the end of the war, Blessed Ursula Ledochowska returned in 1920 to Poland, which was again free and independent, intending to rejoin the religious community of her motherhouse in Krakow. Once there, however, she soon noticed that she and the Sisters who had worked abroad with her had distanced themselves, by the very nature of their apostolate during World War I, from the form of community life at the Ursuline convent in Krakow, particularly since their apostolate was no longer directed so much toward girls from well-to-do families but, rather, primarily toward the impoverished, the infirm elderly, and the children of families in reduced circumstances.
Therefore, with the approval of the Holy See in Rome, Ursula Ledochowska and her Sisters separated themselves from the Polish Ursuline order and founded the autonomous branch of the Ursuline Sisters of the Heart of Jesus in Agony (Orsoline del Sacro Cuore di Gesu Agonizzante; called the Grey Ursulines in Poland). This religious congregation was first approved by the Church probationally in 1923 and definitively soon afterward in 1930. When the seventy-four-year-old foundress died on May 29, 1939, in Rome, the congregation already numbered more than a hundred members in thirty-five convents. Today there are ninety-five foundations in Finland, France, Italy, Poland, Brazil, Canada, and, since 1980, also in Germany.
The spirituality of Sister Ursula and her religious congregation includes a particular devotion to the divine Heart of Jesus in his agony unto death [cf. Mk 14:34]. The Constitution drawn up by Blessed Ursula Ledochowska say, significantly, “To proclaim Christ and the love of his Heart is the specific task of our Congregation. We accomplish this through all of those activities that have as their goal the propagation and strengthening of the faith, especially through the education and training of children and youth and through service to the poorest and the oppressed among our brethren.”. More information about the spirituality of Blessed Ursula Ledochowska is given in her published writings [see list below].
Mother Ursula received a great deal of help in her personal striving for holiness from the influence and example of her sister Maria Theresia Ledochowska, who was beatified in 1975, and from that of her priest-brother Vladimir Ledochowski, the twenty-sixth general superior of the Society of Jesus, who led a saintly life and for whom a beatification process is likewise under way.”
– F. Holboeck
WRITINGS OF BLESSED URSULA :
Ledochowska, Julia Ursula Maria: Besides the ‘Constitutions’ and the ‘Directory’ (Pniewy, 1923-1930), she wrote ‘Meditations for Sisters’, 4 vols. (Pniewy, 1930-1931); ‘The Monthly Retreat’ (Pniewy, 1933); ‘Examination of Conscience for Superiors’; and ‘Beneath the Star of the Sea’. The last work has been published in Polish, German, French, and Italian editions.