In 1193, Clare was born in Assisi, Italy. As the daughter of wealthy parents, she was educated in reading and writing as well as in the domestic arts of spinning and needlework. Though raised among the nobility, she cared little for the social life which surrounded her. Greatly influenced by the piety of her mother, she decided to dedicate her life to God. Caring and praying for the poor, Clare saved food from her family table to distribute to the needy outside the doors of her home.
It is believed that Clare heard St. Francis preaching in the streets of Assisi about his new religious community of men called Friars who relied solely on alms or begging for their needs. Clare was inspired by his words.
Clare’s parents decided that she would marry a wealthy young man. In desperation, Clare fled her home and sought refuge with St. Francis, who received her into religious life.
Clare lived briefly at San Paolo delle Abdesse, a nearby Benedictine monastery of nuns. Then she moved again for a short period to a house of female penitents, Sant’Angelo in Panza on Monte Subasio. She was joined there by her sister Agnes.
Clare and Agnes next moved to the Church of San Damiano, which St. Francis himself had rebuilt. Soon other women joined them. San Damiano became known for its radically lifestyle, and its residents were known as the “Poor Ladies.”
San Damiano became the focal point for Clare’s new religious Order, the “Order of San Damiano”. By 1263, 10 years after Clare’s death, the order would be known as the Order of Saint Clare.
Unlike the Franciscan friars who moved freely around the country to preach, an itinerant life was hardly conceivable at that time for women. Therefore, Clare’s sisters lived in enclosure and dedicated their lives to manual labor and prayer.
For a time, St. Francis himself directed the Order. Then in 1216, Clare accepted the role of abbess at San Damiano. As abbess Clare defended her Order against attempts by prelates to impose on them a rule that closely resembled the Rule of St. Benedict rather than St. Francis’s stricter determination to rely on alms or donations. Clare sought to imitate St. Francis’ virtues and way of life. She saw St. Francis as a spiritual father and played a significant role in encouraging and aiding him. She cared for him during his illnesses at the end of his life and was with him when he died in 1226.
After St. Francis’s death, Clare continued to promote the growth of her Order. She wrote letters to abbesses in other parts of Europe. She thwarted attempts by each successive pope to impose any rule on her Order which would diminish their radical commitment to corporate poverty. She worked hard despite the poor health which plagued her until her death.
On August 9, 1253, Pope Innocent IV issued the papal bull “Solet Annure” which confirmed that Clare’s rule would be the governing rule for the “Order of Poor Ladies”. Two days later, on August 11, Clare died at the age of 59. Her remains were temporarily interred at the chapel of San Giorgio until a church to hold her remains could be built.
In the 1255 document of her canonization, numerous miracles attributed to St. Clare are retold. For example, upon finding an empty jar miraculously filled with oil when they were in need, St. Clare believed that God had filled it as “a gift of divine generosity.” The book, “Legend of Clare”, tells how St. Clare healed a young boy with an emotional disorder.
St. Clare accepted all things and people as a gift from God. She did daily work with everyone else. She was attentive to each sister’s well-being. One day St. Clare suspected that a sister was suffering from depression. St. Clare gave her extra tenderness and care, and the nun was restored to health and peace of heart.
St. Clare is often depicted in art carrying a monstrance or pyx, the small vessel in which the communion host is carried. This commemorates the time when she warded off the soldiers of Frederick II at the gates of her monastery by displaying the Blessed Sacrament and kneeling in prayer.
Today Poor Clares number over 20,000 sisters throughout the world with 16 Federations in over 70 countries.
- Armstrong, Regis, and Brady, Ignatius. “Francis and Clare: The Complete Works”. N.Y.:Paulist Press, 1982.
- Armstrong, Regis. “Clare of Assisi Early Documents”. N.Y.: Paulist Press, 1988.