Saint Clare of Assisi: First Woman to Join Saint Francis

Saint Clare of Assisi: First Woman to Join Saint Francis

On August 11, the Franciscan family celebrates the feast of St. Clare of Assisi (1193-1253), the first woman to join Francis and his brothers in forging a new Gospel way of life.

Embarking on a life of penance

Clare was born into one of the feudal land-owning families of Assisi, spending some years in the neighboring city of Perugia due to class warfare in Assisi. Several years after her family's return to Assisi, she determined to embark on a life of penance in her family home.

Joining Francis and his brothers

Inspired by conversations she had with Francis, however, in 1211 (others say 1212) she courageously decided to abandon her family, possessions, and social status to join Francis and his brothers at the Portiuncula. Soon, she was joined by several other women, and they settled at the church of San Damiano. Francis composed a brief form of life for her community.

St Clare of Assisi San Damiano entrance 700pxlsThe monastic complex of San Damiano in Assisi, where Clare and her Poor Sisters lived for over 40 years, today houses a novitiate of the Friars Minor. Photo in public domain.

Francis pledged loving care and special solicitude

Francis told them:

Since by divine inspiration you have made yourselves daughters and servants of the most High King, the heavenly Father, and have taken the Holy Spirit as your spouse, choosing to live according to the perfection of the Holy Gospel, I resolve and promise for myself and for my brothers always to have the same loving care and special solicitude for you as I have for them.

St Clare of Assisi San Damiano chapel Monti 700pxlsThe chapel in San Damiano holds a replica of the original crucifix in front of which Saint Francis prayed. Photo by Dominic Monti, OFM.

St Clare of Assisi large cross 800pxlsWhen Clare's community moved from San Damiano to the new monastery adjacent to the basilica of St. Clare in 1260, they brought with them the large cross that helped inspire Francis's conversion and before which Clare and      her sisters prayed for 40 years. It is now housed in a chapel within the basilica of St. Clare. Photo by Dominic Monti, OFM.

Living simply, prayerfully

Clare and her Poor Sisters lived simply and prayerfully at San Damiano for over 40 years, supporting themselves only by the work of their hands and freely-offered alms. Clare had to fight to maintain her distinctive vision of religious life.

St Clare of Assisi San Damiano cloisterA view of the cloister within San Damiano in Assisi. Photo by Dominic Monti, OFM.

Gaining approval for her own Rule

After Francis's death she was placed under a form of life composed by Cardinal Ugollno of Ostia (Pope Gregory IX), but she finally gained approval for her own Rule from Pope Innocent IV shortly before her death in 1253. Clare was canonized just two years later, in 1255.

Santa Chiara front Assisi Monti 700pxlsThe Basilica of Santa Chiara in Assisi, built to house Clare's remains after her canonization in 1255, was dedicated in 1260. At this time, the Poor Clare community moved from San Damiano to a new monastery adjacent to this basilica. Photo by Dominic Monti, OFM.

Choosing the things of heaven

As Clare wrote to St. Agnes of Prague:

If so great and good Lord, then, on coming into the Virgin's womb, chose to appear despised, needy, and poor in this world, so that people who were in utter poverty and want, suffering hunger for heavenly nourishment, might become rich in him by possessing the kingdom of heaven, then rejoice and be glad! . . . What a great and praiseworthy exchange: to leave the things of time for those of eternity, to choose the things of heaven for the goods of earth, to receive the hundred-fold in place of one, and to possess a blessed and eternal life!

A blessed feast to all!

A blessed feast to all of you, especially to all our Poor Clare sisters! Holy Mother Clare, pray for us!

Learn more

For free access to Clare's writings and other early documents on her movement, please sign up on our website.

See our blog of August 10, 2021, that features a selection from the new popular biography Light of Assisi: The Story of Saint Clare, by Margaret Carney, OSF (Franciscan Media, 2021).

For those who would also like more detail, see the valuable companion to the study of Clare, Studying the Life of Saint Clare of Assisi, by William R. Hugo, OFM Cap., and Joanne Schatzlein, OSF (New City Press, 2019).

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Main image: This monumental wooden altar piece or dossal, depicting scenes from the life of Clare (c. 1280), hangs in the Basilica of St. Clare in Assisi.

Dominic Monti

Written by : Dominic Monti

Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. A native of nearby Bradford, PA, he was educated at St. Bonaventure (BA); after joining the Order, he attended the Catholic University of America (STB), Union Theological Seminary, NY (STM), and the Divinity School of the University of Chicago (PhD). He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor. He is spiritual assistant to a federation of Poor Clares and the Franciscan Secular Institute, the Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ.
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