Poor Clares


Catholic Encyclopedia

To see a history of the Poor Clares in North America

The Second Order of St. Francis. The subject will be treated here under the following heads:

I. Beginnings at San Damiano;
II. Rule of Ugolino;
III. Definitive Rule of St. Clare;
IV Spread of the Order;
V. Colettine Reform;
VI. In England and America;
VII. Mode of Life;
VIII. Saints and Blessed of the Order;
IX. Present Status.

I. In the great Franciscan movement of the thirteenth century an important part was played by this order of religious women, which had its beginning in the convent of San Damiano, Assisi. When St. Clare (q. v.) in 1212, following the advice of St. Francis (q. v.), withdrew to San Damiano, she was soon surrounded by a number of ladies attracted by the holiness of her life. Among the first to join her were several immediate relatives, including her sister Agnes, her mother, aunt, and niece. Thus was formed the nucleus of the new order. Here St. Clare became the counsellor of St. Francis and after his death remained the supreme exponent of the Franciscan ideal of poverty. "This ideal was the exaltation of the beggar's estate into a condition of spiritual liberty, wherein man would live in conscious dependence upon the providence of God and the good will of his fellowmen" (Cuthbert, "The Life and Legend of the Lady St. Clare", p. 4). At the outset St. Clare received from St. Francis a "formula vitæ" for the growing community. This was not a formal rule, but simply a direction to practise the counsels of the Gospel (Seraphicæ legislationis textus originales, p. 62). "Vivere secundum perfectionem sancti Evangelii" was the keynote of St. Francis's message. On behalf of the sisters, St. Clare petitioned Innocent III for the "privilege" of absolute poverty, not merely for the individual members but for the community as a whole. Highly pleased with the unusual request he granted it, says the saint's biographer, with his own hand "cum hilaritate magna" ("Röm. Quartalschrift", 1902, p. 97; see, however, Robinson, "Life of St. Clare", note 114);

II. In 1217 an event occurred which proved to be of first importance in the development of the new community. In that year Ugolino, Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia, was sent to Tuscany as Apostolic delegate; he formed a warm attachment for St. Francis, and soon became the confidant and adviser of the seraphic doctor in all things relating to the second Order ("Analecta Franciscana", III, p. 686). Concerning the manner of life of the religious who gathered in various places imitating the example of the community at San Damiano we have only the account given by Jacques de Vitry in 1216 and the letters of Ugolino to Honorius III in 1218. The former speaks of women who dwell in hospices in community life and support themselves by their own labour. Ugolino writes that many women have renounced the world and desired to establish monasteries where they would live in total poverty with no possessions except their houses. For this purpose estates were often donated, but the administration of these presented difficulties. The pope decided that Ugolino should accept these estates in the name of the Church and that the houses established thereon should be immediately subject to the pope. About 1219 Ugolino drew up a rule for these groups of women, taking the Rule of St. Benedict as a ground work, with severe regulations having, however, no distinctively Franciscan element in them. His first foundation was the monastery of Monticello near Florence (1219). This rule was soon adopted by the monasteries at Perugia, Siena, Gattajola, and elsewhere. There is no evidence that it was ever accepted at San Damiano. It is noteworthy that it does not raise the question of the ownership of property by the various monasteries. This was a point on which St. Francis and Ugolino did not agree. The subsequent modifications which this rule underwent at the hands of Innocent IV in 1247, and of Urban IV in 1263, resulted in the triumph of Ugolino's view, while St. Francis's ideal of utter poverty found expression in a definitive rule, the confirmation of which St. Clare secured in 1253. The opening words of Ugolino's Rule, "Regulam beatissimi Benedicti vobis tradimus observandam", have been taken to indicate that the Poor Clares were an offshoot of the Benedictines. This conclusion, however, is unwarranted. The Lateran Council, a few years earlier, had decreed that new orders should adopt a rule already approved. The new order was not bound to the observance of the older rule, except in regard to the three customary vows. This was Ugolino's intention in drawing up the rule, and it is confirmed by a letter of Innocent IV to Agnes of Bohemia, in which he explains the meaning of the words in question (Sbarales, I, p. 315).

After the death of St. Francis (1226) and the elevation of Ugolino to the papal chair as Gregory IX (1227), certain changes were introduced in the practical direction of conventual life. The pope offered to bestow possessions on the convent of San Damiano over which St. Clare presided. She firmly refused the offer and petitioned to be permitted to continue in the spirit of St. Francis. In response to this request, Gregory granted her (17 September, 1228) the "privilege of most high poverty", namely," ut recipere possessiones a nullo compelli possitis". The convents of Perugia and Florence followed the example of San Damiano. Other convents, however, gladly availed themselves of the possessions which the pope offered them, "propter eventus temporum et pericula sæculorum". Thus were laid the foundation of the two observances which obtain among the daughters of St. Clare. The plea of Agnes of Bohemia for a new rule was rejected by Gregory IX in 1238, and again by Innocent IV in 1243. In 1247 Innocent IV, to secure unity of observance and peace of conscience for the sisters, modified the original rule in two points. In place of the reference to the Rule of St. Benedict he inserted a reference to the Rule of St. Francis, which, in the meantime, had been approved, and he embodied in the rule regulations covering certain changes already introduced in various convents by his predecessor or by himself. Thus, the direction of the communities of the order was placed in the hands of the general and provincial of the Franciscans. The sisters were directed to recite the Divine Office according to the custom of the Friars Minor. The regulations concerning silence and abstinence were modified. The length of novitiate was fixed at one year. The most notable change is to be found in the express permission granted to every convent to hold possessions, for the administration of which a prudent procurator was to be secured by each house. In the year 1263 the original rule underwent a final modification at the hands of Urban IV. On 18 October of that year the sovereign pontiff issued the rule which is in the most general observance among the Poor Clares and which has given the name "Urbanist" to a large division of the order. It is noteworthy that in Urban's Rule the new community received for the first time the official title of "Order of St. Clare". In a few particulars the new regulations were less severe than in the rule of 1247. For instance, the abbess was empowered to dispense with the obligation of silence during certain hours of the day at her good pleasure. The sections of the rule are arranged in a new order and are divided into twenty-six chapters. For the most part the very words of the previous rule are employed. One important change must be noted. Innocent IV had left the Second Order in charge of the general and provincial of the Friars Minor. Urban IV withdrew from these officials practically all their authority over the Second Order and bestowed it on the cardinal protector.

III. Meanwhile, St. Clare had secured from innocent IV the confirmation of a new rule differing widely from the original rule drawn up by Ugolino, and modified by his successors on the papal throne. For forty years she had been the living rule from which the community at San Damiano had imbibed the spirit of St. Francis. A few days before her death she placed the convent under a rule which embodied that spirit more perfectly than did Ugolino's Rule. The Bull "Solet annuere", 9 August, 1253, confirming St. Clare's Rule, was directed to the Sisters of San Damiano alone. The new rule was soon adopted by other convents and forms the basis of the second grand division of the Poor Clares. It is an adaptation of the Franciscan Rule to the needs of the Second Order. Its twelve chapters correspond substantially to those of the Franciscan Rule, and in large sections there is a verbal agreement between the two rules. In a few instances it borrows regulations from the original rule and from the modified form of that rule published by Innocent IV. The most important characteristic of St. Clare's Rule is its express declaration that the sisters are to possess no property, either as individuals or as a community. In this regulation the new rule clearly breathes the spirit of the seraphic founder. It is improbable, however, that St. Francis was the author of it or that it was approved by Gregory IX, as is sometimes asserted. With the data obtainable no categorical answer can be given to the question of authorship, though the compiler may well have been St. Clare herself (Lemmens in "Röm. Quartalschr.", I, page 118). The original Bull of Innocent IV confirming the Rule of St. Clare was discovered in 1893 in a mantle of the saint which had been preserved, among other relics, at the monastery of St. Clare at Assisi (Robinson, "Inventarium documentorum", 1908).

IV. While the rule was undergoing these various modifications, the order was rapidly spreading throughout Europe. At San Damiano, St. Clare's sister, Agnes, and her aunt, Buona Guelfuccio (in religion Sister Pacifica), played a large part in its early development. In 1318 permission was obtained from the Bishop of Perugia for the establishment of a monastery in that city. The following year Agnes founded at Florence a community which became the centre of numerous new foundations, namely, those at Venice, Mantua, and Padua. Monasteries of the order were soon to be found at Todi, Volterra, Foligno, and Beziers. St. Clare's niece, Agnes, introduced the new order into Spain. The cities of Barcelona and Burgos became thriving communities. The first foundation in Belgium was effected at Bruges by Sister Ermentrude, who, after the death of St. Clare, displayed great zeal in spreading the order through Belgium and northern France. The earliest community in France, however, was planted at Reims in 1229 at the request of the archbishop of that see. The monasteries at Montpelier, Cahors, Bordeaux, Metz, and Besançon sprang from the house at Reims; and that of Marseilles was founded from Assisi in 1254. The Royal Abbey at Longchamp, which enjoyed the patronage of Bl. Isabel, daughter of Louis VIII and Blanche of Castile, is usually though with some question counted as a branch of the Poor Clares. (See article ISABEL OF FRANCE.) Among the earliest foundations in Germany was that of Strasburg, where Innocent IV's revision of the rule was accepted in 1255. In Bohemia the order had an illustrious patroness, Princess Agnes (Blessed Agnes of Prague), a cousin of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Agnes was but one of the ladies of high rank who, attracted to the new order, put aside the vanities of their social position to embrace a life of poverty and seclusion from the world.

V. For a century after the death of St. Clare comparatively few of the convents had adopted the Rule of 1253. Most of them had availed themselves of the permission to hold property in the name of the community. Moreover, in the fourteenth century the order suffered very much during the Great Western Schism, which was responsible for the general decline of discipline (Manuale Historiæ Ordinis Fratrum Minorum, p. 586). At the beginning of the fifteenth century, however, the spirit of utter poverty was revived through the instrumentality of St. Colette (died 1447) who instituted the most vigorous reform the Second Order has ever experienced. Her desire to restore or introduce the practice of absolute poverty was put on a fair way to realization when, in 1406, Benedict XIII appointed her reformer of the whole order and gave her the office of Abbess General over all convents she should establish or reform. In 1412 St. Colette established a monastery at Besançon. Before her death (1447) she had founded 17 new monasteries, to which, in addition to the Rule of St. Clare, she gave constitutions and regulations of her own. These Constitutions of St. Colette were confirmed by Pius II (Seraphicæ Legislationis Textus Originales, 99-175). After the death of St. Colette her reform continued to spread and by the end of the fifteenth century reformed convents were to be found throughout France, Flanders, Brabant, Savoy, Spain, and Portugal. The number of sisters at that time exceeded 35,000 and they were everywhere commended by the austerity of their lives (Pidoux, "Sainte Colette", p.158). From the year 1517 the spiritual direction of the Poor Clares, the Colettines not excepted, was given to the Observants. This was a return to the condition existing before the year 1263, at which time the Friars Minor, under the leadership of St. Bonaventure, at the General Chapter of Pisa sought to resign the spiritual care of the Second Order (Archivum Franciscanum Historicum, October, 1910, 664-79). The first quarter of the sixteenth century witnessed a widespread revival of the Urbanist Rule. Towards the end of the same century, though the religious wars had destroyed many monasteries, there were about six hundred houses in existence. Subsequently the order experienced a rapid growth and the external development of the Poor Clares appears to have reached its culmination about 1630 in 925 monasteries with 34,000 sisters under the direction of the minister general. If we can credit contemporary chroniclers, there were still more sisters under the direction of the bishops, making the entire number about 70,000. After the opening years of the eighteenth century the order declined and the French Revolution and the subsequent policy of secularization almost totally destroyed it, except in Spain, where the monasteries were undisturbed.

VI. In 1807 a Poor Clare community of the Urbanist Observance, fleeing from the terrors of the French Revolution, took refuge in England and founded a monastery at Scorton Hall in Yorkshire. They were the first of their order to establish themselves in that country since the religious changes of the sixteenth century. Fifty years after their arrival they removed to their present home, the Monastery of St. Clare at Darlington, also in Yorkshire. Refugees from the French Revolution likewise found their way to America. In 1801 a community, presided over by Abbess Marie de La Marche, purchased property in Georgetown, D. C., and opened a school for their support. Their efforts met with little success and they returned to Europe. The suppression of the religious in Italy was the occasion of the first permanent settlement of the Poor Clares in the United States. In August, 1875, two sisters by blood as well as in religion, Maria Maddelena, and Maria Costanza Bentivoglio, from the celebrated Monastery of San Lorenzo-in-Panisperma, came to America by direction of Pius IX in response to a petition presented by Mother Ignatius Hayes of the Third Order Regulars of St. Francis. After vainly seeking to found convents in New York, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia, they went to New Orleans but soon removed to Cleveland, Ohio, where they were joined by a community of German Poor Clares to whom they relinquished the convent. The new German community remained in Cleveland and have since founded another convent in Chicago; they follow the reform of St. Colette. Meanwhile the Italian sisters found a permanent home in Omaha, thanks to the munificence of Mr. John Creighton. On 14 July, 1882, the canonical enclosure was established in the new monastery. From the monastery of St.Clare in Omaha have sprung directly, or indirectly, the foundations of the order at New Orleans; Evansville, Ind.; Boston; and Bordentown, N. J.

VII. The daily life of the Poor Clares is occupied with both work and prayer. It is a life of penance and contemplation. The rule says that the sisters shall fast at all times except on the Feast of the Nativity. The constitutions explain that meat may not be used even on Christmas. The "great silence" is from Compline until after the conventual Mass. During the day there is one hour of recreation except on Friday. Meals are taken in silence. The Divine Office is recited, not sung. The Franciscan breviary is used. The habit is a loose fitting garment of gray frieze; the cord is of linen rope about one-half inch in thickness having four knots representing the four vows; the sandals are of cloth.

VIII. Among the saints of the order may be mentioned: the founder, Clare of Assisi (died 1253); Agnes of Assisi (died 1253); Collette of Corbie (died 1447); Catharine of Bologna (died 1463); Veronica Giuliani (died 1727). Holzapfel enumerates seventeen Blessed of the order (Manuale, 638), of whom the following are the more important: Agnes of Bohemia (died 1280); Isabel of France (died 1270); Margaret Colonna (died 1284); Cunegundis of Hungary (died 1292); Antonia of Florence (died 1472).

IX. According to the census of the Poor Clares, taken in October, 1909, the following is the present status of the order: Italy, Houses 108, Members 1816; Sardinia, H. 3, M. 40; Corsica, H. 1, M. 24; Palestine, H. 2, M. 54; Tyrol, H. 1, M. 50; Dalmatia, H. 1, M. 15; Prussia, H. 4, M. 126; Bavaria, H. 3, M. 100; Holland, H. 4, M. 112; Belgium, H. 39, M. 870; Ireland, H. 9, M. 178; England, H. 11, M. 129; France, H. 31, M. 760; Spain, H. 247, M. 5543; Portugal, H. 3, M. 40 (now dispersed); Peru, H. 1, M. 34; Columbia, H. 5, M. 136; Ecuador, H. 5, M. 155; Bolivia, H. 2, M. 36; Argentina, H. 1, M. 36; Brazil, H. 2, M. 3(?); Mexico, H. 14, M. 204; Canada, H. 1, M. 20; United States, H. 7, M. 125; total H. 505, M. 10,586.

THOMAS OF CELANO, Vita S. Clarœ in Acta SS., II, Aug. (ed. Paris, 1867), 754-67; ROBINSON, Life of St. Clare (Philadelphia, 1910); Seraphicœ legislationis textus originales (Quaracchi, 1897) Containing of interest to the Second Order the following documents: the Bull "Solet annuere" with the Rule of 1263 (49-76), "Privilegium seraphicæ paupertatis" granted by Gregory IX (97-8)." Textus originales Constitutionum Coletæ" in fifteen chapters, with the Bull of confirmation by Pius II (99-175), "Testamentum S. Claræ" (273), "Benedictio S. Claræ" (281), and the "Testamentum S. Coletæ" (298-301); MIGUET, Règle de Ste Claire (Chambéry, 1693); FRANÇOIS DU PUIS, La vie et légende de Madame Ste Claire (ed., Paris, 1902); CHÉRANCÉ, Ste Claire d'Assise (Paris, 1901); BALFOUR, The Life and Legend of the Lady St. Claire (London, 1910); SBARALEA, Bullarium Franciscanum, I-IV (Rome, 1759-68), Continued by Eubel, V-VII (Rome, 1898-1904); Anal. Francisc., I-IV (Quaracchi, 1885-1906); WADDING, Annales Minorum (Rome, 1731-6); DE GUBERNATIS, Orbis Seraphicus, I-IV (1682-5); Archiv. Francisc. Histor., I-III (Quaracchi, 1908-10); PIDOUX, Ste Collette (Paris, 1907); GERMAIN, Ste Collette de Corbie (Paris, 1904); UBALD D'ALENCON, Documents sur la Réforme de Ste Collette en France in Archiv. Francis. Hist., II, 447; LEMMENS, Die Anfänge des Klarissenordens in Röm. Quartalschr., XVI, pts. i-ii; LEMPP, Briegers Zeitschr. fur Kirchengesch., XII (1893), 181; XXIII. 626; LAZZERI, Documenta controversiam inter FF. Minores et Clarissas spectantia (1262-97) in Archiv. Francis. Hist. (1910), fasc. iv; SABATIER, Speculum Perfectionis; Legenda antiquissima S. Francisci (Paris. 1898); FIEGE, Princess of Poverty (Evansville, 1900); HOLZAPFEL, Manuale historiœ Ordinis Fratrum Mimorum, tr. (1909); IDEM, Handbuch der Gesch. d. Franciscanerordens (Freiburg, 1909); BÖHMER, Analekten zur Gesch. des hl. Franz (Tübingen, 1904); Hist. abrégée de l'ordre de Ste Claire d'Assise (2 vols., Lyons and Paris, 1906); WAUER, Entstehung u, Ausbreitung d. Klarissenordens, besonders in den deutschen Minoritenprovinzen (Leipzig, 1906).

Author: Edwin V. O'Hara

Transcribed by Douglas J. Potter
Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary      

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