The teenager who ran away from home to join St Francis
Clare (c 1194-1253) was a disciple of St Francis of Assisi, with whom she founded the Order of Poor Ladies, once known in England as the Minoresses, and now as the Poor Clares.
Clare was born at Assisi into a noble family. At 18 she caught spiritual fire when she heard St Francis preach, and ran away from home to join him.
Francis and his friars met her some two miles out of town, at the Portiuncula, with lighted tapers in their hands. There, she put off her fine clothes in favour of a penitential habit, while Francis himself cut off her hair.
When relations arrived to drag her back to the world, Clare clung on to the altar cloth with such determination that it was pulled half off. Francis placed her in the Benedictine convent of St Paul near Bastia, and then in another nunnery, Sant’ Angelo di Panzo, where, to her father’s fury, she was joined by her sister Agnes. Then in 1216 St Francis established them both in a primitive dwelling next to the church of St Damiano in Assisi.
Her mother, too, became a member of this community, along with three women from the aristocratic Ubaldini family, who sought in rigid mortification relief from the chains of luxury and privilege. The nuns went barefoot, slept on the ground, foreswore meat and never spoke save in necessity. Many contemporaries considered that St Francis’s Rule was too harsh for women. But when Pope Gregory IX attempted to ease its rigour, and to bestow property on the community, Clare was having none of it. “I need to be absolved from my sins,” she declared, “but I do not wish to be absolved from the obligation of following Jesus Christ.”
After her death, though, Pope Urban IV allowed a mitigated version of the Rule which was adopted by some of the Poor Clares.
Clare remained abbess at St Damino for 40 years, rather against her will, for she herself sought the lowliest employments. St Francis, however, wanted her in charge, and she would never flout his will.
Although Clare rarely left her convent, stories of the miracles which she wrought began to spread. It was said that she had repelled the army of the Emperor Frederick II from Assisi by appearing on the town’s walls with a pyx.
During her last years Clare was often sick, but never low-spirited. “Blessed be Thou, O Lord, for having created me,” she said on her deathbed.
Her order spread beyond Italy, especially to Spain. There were four houses in England, and the street name Minories, near Aldgate, preserves the memory of the medieval London convent.
Long invoked for the cure of sore eyes, Clare has been named the patron saint of television.