History of the Order
and our Roswell Foundation
and our Roswell Foundation
St. Francis and St. Clare
The whole testament of history proves that no enduring work of a great man is begun or fulfilled without the cooperation of a great woman. And no woman ever appreciated the ideals of a great man more profoundly and comprehensively than St. Clare understood the ideals of St. Francis of Assisi. In a medieval society that was suffocating in the close quarters of materialism and gagging on surfeit, Francis came preaching the beauty of evangelical poverty. Clare listened. Into the chaos of unending wars and petty rivalries, the “little poor man of Assisi,” as he came to be called, brought this gentle benediction: “May the Lord give you peace.”
Clare understood. Where ambitions seethed and men were ruthless in their quest for power, Francis begged as a favor to be considered the least of men. Clare caught his inspiration. Like the Divine Child held in the arms of old Simeon and prophesied to be a sign of contradiction, Francis of Assisi came with a form of life that cut through the morass of war and hatred and worldliness. He walked at right angles to all that characterized his age. He was a sign of contradiction.
Clare was seventeen when she heard Francis preach of the love of God and evangelical poverty with such burning sincerity that the richest young man in Assisi promptly gave away his fortune to the poor and ran after him, that a scholar and canon came to learn a better wisdom from Francis, and that glittering knights threw down their swords to take up the weapons of God as Francis taught them.
It was the beginning of the Franciscan Movement of the thirteenth century and the inauguration of the Franciscan Order, which is the largest in the Church today and which God himself promised Francis would endure to the end of time.
But what of Clare? The eldest daughter of an influential Italian family, St. Clare had been born in Assisi in 1193 or 1194. The goodness, charm and piety of this favored child seemed to point to a future couched in luxury, wealth, and prestige. Yet God had fashioned the heart of Clare for something greater; and the sparks of that “something” were fanned into a great flame of response when she went to Francis and told him of God’s summons in her soul, asking him what to do. Francis told her. And that was the beginning of his Second Franciscan Order, the cloistered Poor Ladies who were later to be known familiarly as the Poor Clares.
When St. Clare left her castle home in the blackness of night on Palm Sunday of 1212 and made her way to the little chapel of St. Mary of the Angels outside Assisi, she was setting out to become the first of St. Francis’ “Poor Ladies,” nuns dedicated to a life of prayer and penance, nuns most intimately united with the Divine Lover in the silence of the cloister. She dressed for the occasion. For such a Bridegroom, she wore her finest gown, the rarest of her many jewels. And then, after Francis had cut her lovely hair (preserved to this day in a precious reliquary in Assisi), because gown and jewels were only symbols of reality, she cast them all away in exchange for the rough, cross-form habit of the Order of Penance, while the tangled silken ropes of that long hair give their own mute testimony to holocaust: her crowning glory laid down at the feet of her King.
Clare was soon joined by her younger sister Agnes, and after a short time the two settled in the ancient church of San Damiano. Clare was scarcely a social misfit. She was definitely not neurotic, nor was her pretty sister, Agnes. It required an extraordinary fortitude for two thirteenth-century girls to stand firm against their raging relatives, their indignant friends, their baffled suitors. It takes the same courage today, not to “talk down,” but to live down the objections of those who demand that talented young girls do something more “useful” than loving God and being His immediately, directly and utterly.
For over forty-one years, Clare spent her life in joyful sacrifice for the needs of the Church and the world, embodying her ideals in the simple Form of Life which she handed on to her daughters of all time as the expression of her whole desire. Certainly she was not a frustrated young woman. She could have had everything the world calls good, but it was not good enough for her. She preferred what God calls everlasting good and realized her own full capacities as so great a woman could never otherwise have done. Lazy? Living in a cloister sinecure? Clare had grown up surrounded by servants, but she wrote in her Rule that her nuns were to consider work as “a grace.” And they were expected to use the grace persistently.
Clare’s Rule of Life (the first in the history of the Church written by a woman) received papal approval on August 9, 1253, just two days before her death on August 11. At that time, an estimated one hundred and twenty-five monasteries were observing the form of life inspired by her courageous following of the Gospel. She was canonized by Pope Alexander IV on August 15, 1255, and her feast day is celebrated on August 11.
St. Colette of Corbie
In the centuries following the deaths of Saints Francis and Clare, their soaring ideals were compromised by many of their followers in favor of an era of mitigation and relaxation that reached its height at the end of the fourteenth century. And so it was that God raised up St. Colette of Corbie, born January 13, 1381, to restore their beautiful dream to its first fervor. Granted papal authorization for the restoration of the Franciscan Order to primitive observance, Colette labored tirelessly in the work of reform, founding sixteen monasteries faithful to the primitive Rule of St. Clare and writing Constitutions which insured the observance of that Rule as a practical way of life. St. Colette died on March 6, 1447 in the monastery she had established in Ghent, Belgium in 1442. She was canonized in 1807, and her feast day is now celebrated on February 7.
There are today twelve monasteries of Poor Clares of the Colettine observance in the United States, originating from St. Colette’s foundation in Ghent. A house at Tongres was founded from Ghent in 1845; Tongres in turn sent a colony of nuns to Düsseldorf, Germany in 1859. Forced into exile by Bismarck's Kulturkampf, the Düsseldorf Poor Clares carried the primitive ideal first to the Netherlands and then to the United States, establishing the first Poor Clare monastery of the reform of St. Colette in Cleveland, Ohio in 1877. It is from this Cleveland motherhouse that the other American foundations were made, including a monastery in Chicago, Illinois in 1893.
Our Roswell Foundation
It was in November of 1948 that a small group of Chicago Poor Clares set out for Roswell, New Mexico, responding to the urgent invitation of Archbishop Edwin Byrne of Santa Fe to found a new monastery in his ancient and historic archdiocese. For he wanted “the praying nuns,” as he fondly described the cloistered Poor Clares, to encircle his vast archdiocese with the arms of their lives of prayer and penitence. Samuel Cardinal Stritch of Chicago agreed, although not without sadness, to let them go. And that, one might well have thought, would have been the end of that. One could scarcely have expected young girls to flock into the little farmhouse-turned-monastery. Yet, flock they did, to the extent that the Roswell community was enabled by God to found or restore six daughter-monasteries: five in the United States (two in Virginia; one in Los Altos Hills, California; one in Belleville, Illinois; the latest in Chicago, Illinois) and the sixth back across the Atlantic Ocean in the Netherlands.
The story of the coming of the little pioneer group of Poor Clares from Chicago is told in the book A Right to Be Merry by our Mother Mary Francis, one of the seven foundresses. Published first by Sheed and Ward, this classic went into five editions and six foreign-language translations. A new edition was published in the year 2001 by Ignatius Press, which likewise published Mother’s account of our first five foundations/restorations in Forth and Abroad a sequel to A Right to Be Merry.
In more recent years, God's call has been heard and answered by generous young women from not only all parts of the United States, but also from Australia, Singapore, El Salvador, and Spain. The community in Roswell presently numbers twenty-two. Mother Mary Angela is the abbess. Mother Mary Francis, who served as abbess of the monastery for forty-one years, received the title of “Mother Emerita” in October 2005, four months before her death on February 11, 2006. Young women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five who are interested in a contemplative vocation may contact Mother Angela.