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.
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.
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.
The 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 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.
The chapel in San Damiano holds a replica of the original crucifix in front of which Saint Francis prayed. Photo by Dominic Monti, OFM.
When 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.
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.
A view of the cloister within San Damiano in Assisi. Photo by Dominic Monti, OFM.
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.
The 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.
As Clare wrote to St. Agnes of Prague:
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. 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.