The first Franciscan woman
Clare was born in 1193 or 1194, the daughter of a nobleman in Assisi. When Francis began to preach in the squares of Assisi in 1210 she was 16 years old, 11 years younger than him. She had always been a serious child, and used to share her food with the poor and needy people of the town. She had already refused several offers of marriage. Now she was captivated by Francis’ preaching of a simple gospel life, and especially his emphasis on poverty. She had several secret meetings with him, accompanied only by a friend, Bona, and made up her mind to join him.
On Palm Sunday 1212 she left her parents’ house secretly. She had already sold her dowry and given the money to the poor. At the little church of St Mary of the Angels, just below Assisi she met Francis and a few of his brothers. She changed her dress for a simple habit, and took off her jewellery. Francis cut her hair, and she made a vow of obedience to him. At first she lived with a Benedictine community of nuns, doing simple menial tasks. Her family were appalled at her choice and sent armed men to bring her back. But they were unsuccessful. When Clare’s younger sister, Catherine, followed her only a fortnight later, the family made even more violent attempts to force her to return home. They were in fact carrying her off physically, but Clare prayed, and Catherine became so heavy that they could not lift her. Defeated, they returned home.
Francis received Catherine too as a sister, and gave her the name Agnes. Then Clare and Agnes moved to San Damiano, the church where Francis had heard the crucifix speak to him. Here the first community of Poor Clares came into being. It grew rapidly, and in 1215, very much against her will, Clare was made Abbess. She held this position until her death in 1253. Two years after she was declared a saint by the church.
In the early days of the Franciscan life Francis visited Clare often, but as his own community grew his visits decreased and she had to find within herself the inspiration she had received from him. Their relationship grew more equal, and Francis would consult her on important decisions. In his last illness he came to San Damiano and Clare cared for him. Although she called herself ‘the little plant of Francis’ she was in fact a powerful and innovative woman, the first woman to write a Rule for a religious community. She struggled with the church for most of her life, as Popes and Cardinals sought to draw her away from the poverty which was at the heart of her following Jesus, but she remained firm and her Rule was finally approved just a few days before her death. By that time there were more than 150 communities which followed her way of life, mainly in Italy, southern France and Spain, but spreading as far east as Prague, and as far west as Bruges.