Ursulines, a monastic order in the Roman Catholic church, founded at Brescia in 1533 by Angela Merici (born at Desenzano in 1474, died March 21, 1540, canonized May 24, 1807). It was at first a voluntary association of widows and young girls, who undertook the gratuitous education of children of their own sex, devoting their spare hours to visiting the sick and relieving the poor. The members were allowed to live at home, submitting only to such regulations as the nature of their work and other circumstances required. As their numbers increased they formed distinct congregations. In 1541 they assumed for their common dress that worn in the country by widows of the middle class. In 1544 their mode of life was approved by Pope Paul III., and, their establishments becoming numerous in northern Italy, they began to live together in common and to elect local superiors, but without binding themselves even by temporary vows. In 1572, at the instance of St. Charles Borromeo, Pope Gregory XIII. erected the congregation of St. Ursula into a religious order, under the rule of St. Augustine, the members adding to the three ordinary monastic vows a fourth binding them to instruct young girls gratuitously.

Several of the local congregations declined to be members of the new order, and with the consent of the church retained their first organization unchanged. Thus, after 1572, the Ursulines were divided into the new or "regular" Ursulines and the "primitive" Ursulines. The first colony established in France was made by Francoise de Bermond at Avignon in 1594, with the special approbation of Pope Clement VIII. In 1608 two members of this establishment went to Paris at the request of Madeleine Lhuillier de Sainte-Beuve, and opened a central house there, which was approved in 1612 by Paul V. Other branches sprang up rapidly around the mother house of Avignon, one of the most fruitful of which was planted at Clermont in Auvergne by Clémence du Ranquet in 1602. The primitive Ursulines also spread beyond the Alps. In 1606 Anne de Saintonge of Dijon formed several establishments of them, which were favored by the bishops and became very popular throughout Franche-Oomte, living in strict retirement without being cloistered, binding themselves by permanent vows only after several years of probation, and educating gratuitously the children of the poor. But these only formed a small minority of the French Ursulines, who in 1715 had 11 provinces and upward of 350 monasteries.

The first Ursuline colony in America was founded in 1639 at Quebec by Marie Guyart, known as Mere de l'Incarnation, the first processes for whose beatification were begun at Rome by the Canadian bishops in 1869. All the Ursuline convents are under the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop, and their coherence is so loose that many convents do not even know to which of the numerous congregations they belong. There are Ursuline convents in the United States at Morrisania (New York city), Cleveland, Toledo, and Fayetteville, 0., Springfield and Alton, 111., Columbia, Savannah, and Augusta, Ga., New Orleans, San Antonio, Galveston, Louisville, and St. Louis; and in Canada at Quebec, Trois Rivieres, and Chatham. The Ursulines have ceased to exist in Italy, Switzerland, and Germany since 1871.