The 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 education.
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 vocation.
Rome 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.
The 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 and houses.
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."