Franciscans, Second Order

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The Order of St. Clare, better known as the Poor Clares, dates back to Palm Sunday, 1212, when St. Clare received the habit from St. Francis of Assisi, opening the way for women to join the Franciscan movement. After a very brief stay with the Benedictines of San Paulo and a few months at Sant Angelo with a group now believed to be Beguines, Clare and her first followers, including her blood sister, Agnes, were taken by Francis to San Damiano, the small chapel where he had first heard a voice from the crucifix calling him to "Rebuild my church." Within the enclosure of that monastery the sisters would live the same gospel life as the friars, a life centered around poverty, minority, and community. Francis gave these first Poor Ladies, as he liked to call them, a very brief "form of life" which committed them to "having nothing" either as individuals or as community. Church authorities regarded this non-ownership as being too risky for enclosed women who, unlike the friars, were not free to go out and to work or beg.

In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council, concerned about the religious groups springing up all over Europe, decreed that new religious communities had to accept one of four existing rules. Francis had already received verbal approval of his rule, but Clare and her sisters had not. The Benedictine rule was closest to the way the sisters were living, but it did not include the Franciscan charism of absolute poverty. Therefore, in 121516 Clare applied for and received an indult from Innocent III giving her and her new community the Privilege of Poverty by which "no one can compel you to accept possessions." As part of this same effort to place the new San Damiano community on more solid canonical footing, Francis "almost forced" Clare to assume the role of abbess, a service she would give to her sisters the remaining 40-some years of her life.

Appointed by Honorius III as papal legate, Cardinal Hugolino of Ostia in 1219 gave the Poor Sisters a new constitution, the Rule of Hugolino. Benedictine in character, it lacked the communal poverty so important to Clare's understanding of her form of life. When Hugolino was elected to the papacy in 1227 Clare asked for a renewal of the Privilege of Poverty that had been given her some ten years earlier and this was granted in 1228. Foundations made by the community at San Damiano accepted this Privilege of Poverty but other monasteries continued to follow Hugolino's Form of Life, retaining communal ownership. All were Benedictine by rule rather than being officially incorporated into the Franciscan family.

During the next decades the rapid multiplication of monasteries claiming the same basic inspiration as the Damianites, as the sisters were sometimes called, prompted Innocent IV in 1247 to write still another Form of Life, which, although incorporating Clare and her followers into the Franciscan Order, still permitted communal ownership of property. This rule was never widely accepted by the sisters.

Around this time Clare began work on her own Form of Life which took its inspiration from Francis, including his emphasis on absolute poverty, but also incorporated elements from the legislation of Hugolino and InnocentIV. However, all of these diverse sources were modified by the lived experience of the sisters at San Damiano, making this the first rule written by a woman for women. When Innocent IV came to visit Clare on her deathbed, she requested papal approval of her Form of Life. This she received on Aug. 9, 1253, two days before she died.

Known today as the Primitive Rule, Clare's Form of Life was accepted by the community of San Damiano and by a few other monasteries; others, however, continued to observe either the Rule of Hugolino or that of InnocentIV. In 1263 St. Bonaventure, as minister general of the Franciscan Order, petitioned Pope Urban IV to bring some unity into the observance of Clare's followers. The pope responded by issuing still another rule, which came to be know as the Urbanist Rule; once again communal ownership of property was permitted. This document was the first to use the title "Order of St. Clare."

By 1316, a hundred years after the order's inception, there were 372 Poor Clare monasteries located in places as diverse as Syria, France, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Bohemia, Sweden, Denmark, Cyprus, Greece, and England. New foundations were made in mission lands as the sisters followed and sometimes preceded the evangelizing efforts of the friars. In the early 1400s a return to the original inspiration of Clare, especially in regard to poverty, was initiated by Colette of Corbie; her reform movement came to be known as the Colettine observance. The Order also suffered from the persecutions of this period. In 1539, when all monasteries were suppressed in England, women who wished to become Clares had to go to the Continent to do so. It would be two and half centuries before the order would be reintroduced. In France the Poor Clares of Lyon were condemned to death but were saved from execution by the prior death of Robespierre. But Josephine Leroux, a Poor Clare from Valenciennes, was martyred along with five Ursuline Sisters. Similar hardship, persecution, imprisonment threatened communities in Germany, Spain, Portugal and other countries, yet the order continued to grow and spread.

For more than 700 years the Poor Clares have kept the same form of life: living a purely contemplative religious life in an enclosed community, relating to each other as sister to sister, practicing the total poverty of "possessing nothing" either individually or communally, and offering a life of personal and liturgical prayer as intercession for all God's people. They form a worldwide order of about a thousand monasteries.

The Poor Clares came to the United States in 1875 in the persons of Mother Maddalena Bentivoglio and her sister, Constance, who were commissioned by Pius IX to start a monastery of the Primitive observance in what was then mission country. They opened the first permanent monastery in Cleveland in August 1877, but when other Clares from Germany, led by Mother Veronica von Elmendorff, arrived later that year, Mother Maddalena moved on, first to New Orleans and finally to Omaha, Nebraska where she succeeded in establishing the proto-monastery of all those using the initials OSC. The Cleveland monastery became the first U.S. foundation of Colettines, i.e., those using the initials PCC.

All Poor Clare monasteries are autonomous, each with its own abbess, council, chapter, and novitiate and its own nuancing of Clare's original charism. In 1950 the Holy See urged all contemplative monasteries to federate for the purpose of sisterly support and communication. At present there are five such federations in the United States: the Bentivoglio Federation and the Holy Name Federation, which include all the houses that trace their beginning to Mother Maddelena; the Federation of Mary Immaculate which unites the Colettine Poor Clares; the-Federation of the Capuchin Poor Clares who came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1981; and the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration who began in the U.S. in 1921 and who have their own PCPA association with their own Constitution based on the Rule of St. Clare. The first Canadian foundation of Colettine Poor Clares was made in Valleyfield, Quebec in 1902. In the western part of Canada several monasteries owe their origin to and are members of the Bentivoglio federation in the United States.

Bibliography: r. armstrong, Clare of Assisi: Early Documents (New York 1988). m. d. frane, ed., Clarion Call: Eight Centuries of Franciscan Poor Clare Life (Jamica Plain, Mass. 1993). c. o'brien, The Story of the Poor Clares (Limerick 1992). i. omaechevarria, Las Clarissas a traves de los siglos (Madrid 1972).

[m. e. beha]

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Franciscans, Second Order

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