Saint Clare is believed to have been born on July 16, 1194 in Assisi. While there is uncertainty to the exact date of her birth, there is no question to the fact that she was the oldest of three girls of the wealthy Offreduccio Family. There was nothing extraordinary of her early years. Clare along with her sisters enjoyed the life of a rich family of the times.
Clare spent her youthful days learning music, fine embroidery and how to entertain guests at social gatherings. A woman of Clare’s status had no need of cooking skills since she would always have servants in the kitchen.
Clare’s mother, Ortolana, was very religious and taught all her children about Jesus and the importance of Sunday Mass and prayer. Clare’s father, Faverone, was happy about the beautiful and gentle woman she was becoming. By her seventeenth year he had found her a wealthy man to be her husband.
Clare seemed to be the luckiest girl in the world. She had it all – but she did not feel as happy and peaceful as she thought she should. There were many poor people in Assisi and the surrounding towns and this at times disturbed her.
While growing up, Clare was very popular at the parties held for the wealthy young people of Assisi. No doubt she first met St. Francis at such events before he left all worldly goods behind.
When she was about 17 Clare again met Francis. This time he and his brothers were enthusiastically preaching about Jesus and caring for the poor. This message and the tremendous joy that Francis and his followers demonstrated challenged Clare to think about her own life. She found Francis and his brothers to be filled with more peace than her father and uncles who were some of the most successful men in Assisi. But they were always worried about someone or something.
Clare went to the Lenten Sermons Francis preached in 1211 and then met privately with him. They spoke of the beauty of poverty, caring for the poor and sick and living like Jesus. She then knew what she wanted to do with her life.
On Palm Sunday of 1212, Clare decided to elope – not with the man to whom her family promised her – but to Jesus. Wearing her best dress and jewelry, she went to the Portiuncula where Francis and his followers held lighted candles and sang the psalms. There, Clare Offreduccio promised her life to Jesus. She removed her wealthy clothes and jewels and embracing poverty put on a rough gray robe and wooden sandals. Then St. Francis himself cut off Clare’s long and beautiful hair as she renounced the world.
Because she was the first woman to follow Francis and there was no place for her to stay, Francis directed her to live with a group of Benedictine Sisters where she would learn about convent life and living in community.
Clare’s father was furious that his oldest daughter joined Francis and his followers. He tried to remove her by force from the monastery where Clare was. She ran into the chapel and literally held on to the Altar as her relatives tried to take her home. Because she was so steadfast and resolute, her family let her stay.
Others began to join Francis and Clare in their work and prayer including Clare’s own sister Agnes. They soon founded a convent for the sisters at the church of San Damiano. After her father died, Clare’s own mother would join the community as well as other wealthy women from the town and from as far away as the great city of Florence.
Francis appointed Clare as the women’s superior in 1215. They would soon be known as Poor Clares. Wearing no shoes, fasting often, perpetually abstaining from meat and sleeping on the hard wood floors the sisters radically embraced a life of poverty and penance. Their embrace of poverty was only equaled by their embrace of prayer. Taking a vow of silence they rarely spoke except to sing God’s praises in the psalms and in prayer.
Francis, Clare and their followers vowed not to have any possessions. It was an extremely tough vow and no other group of religious at that time made such a promise. It was a way of life that made some in the Church uneasy. When St. Francis died in 1226, Clare was to insure that this embrace of “Sister Poverty” was to be incorporated into the Sisters’ Rule.
As tough and extreme as their lives were, it did not stop the community from growing in numbers. Many from all over Europe came to Assisi and were moved by the prayer and joyful spirit of Clare and her sisters. Some in turn returned home and founded convents of Poor Clares in their own towns and cities.
One story of the power of St. Clare’s prayer regards the invasion of the Saracens in 1240. As the invading forces surrounded and attacked Assisi, they made their way to the city they first encountered San Damiano – the convent where Clare and her sisters lived – because it was out side the city walls. As the warriors approached, Clare’s sisters panicked and roused Clare from her sick bed. She in turn lead them in prayer and as the invaders began to show themselves over the convent walls, she took the monstrance from the chapel with the consecrated Host and showed it to the Saracens. Upon seeing Clare holding the Blessed Sacrament the enemy first froze in their tracks and then gripped with a feeling of terror began to retreat. While they never returned to the convent again, Clare’s sisters knew that illness had Clare firmly in its grasp.
At Christmas in 1252, her last on earth, Clare was not well enough to go to Midnight Mass at the Church of St. Francis with her sisters and the friars. She became very lonely and began to cry. Then realizing that her lonely cell was better lodging than had Mary and Joseph, she began to meditate on the Christmas Mystery. Suddenly her cell burst into light, her cell walls were shaken by the sound of a great organ and she was able to see the Church of St. Francis ablaze with candles. She watched the Celebrant ascend the Altar and participated at Mass listening to the beautiful chants. She had been unable to go to Church and God in His loving tenderness had brought Church to her.
Clare and her sisters became popular without leaving their lives of prayer, work and silence. Word of their radical life spread through the land. Many women wanted to join in their ranks. Clare was so renown for her holiness that the pope and countless others came to her deathbed. In the midst of her sisters and three friars she died on August 11, 1253.
Because of her renowned sanctity of life, the Church opened her process to becoming a canonized saint just over two months after her death on October 18, 1253. During that process much more about the “Humble Lady of Assisi” was discovered by exploring her writings and listening to the many accounts of those who knew her. Pope Alexander IV finally proclaimed her a saint on August 15, 1255. On February 17, 1958, Pope Pius XII declared her the Patroness of those involved in Television and the Media.
Today there are hundreds of Poor Clare convents all over the world.
Compiled by Fr. John O’Connor