Biography of Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C.
February 14, 1921 - February 11, 2006
On Valentine's Day, 1921, a child was born in St. Louis, Missouri to John Aschmann and his forty-two-year-old wife, Anne Maher Aschmann. The blend of German father and Irish mother would provide felicitous personality traits for their offspring in her future vocation as Mother Abbess. Anne herself baptized the child, due to dire predictions of the doctor that she would not live beyond a fortnight, which happily proved false. She was given the name Alberta in honor of her father's favorite sister. Taught by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, she knew at the age of sixteen that she had to be a sister, and became a candidate in their motherhouse at Ripa after high school graduation. She attended St. Louis University but her time there came to an end just short of attaining her degree. God's call had sounded in her heart once again, and she knew she had to leave all that was dear to her and become a cloistered contemplative nun.
Despite the opposition of her family and almost everyone she knew, Alberta left for Chicago on July 7, 1942 where she entered the Poor Clare Monastery. A year later on June 26, she received the holy habit and her new religious name, Sister Mary Francis of Our Lady. Even as a novice, she was permitted by the abbess, Mother Immaculata, to develop her gift of writing poetry, and a first volume, Whom I Have Loved, was published while she was still in the novitiate. This work brought her visits by the famous poet and president of St. Mary's College at Notre Dame, Sister Madaleva, as well as the well-known poet Sister Maura, S.S.N.D., and the daughter of Hilaire Belloc, Eleanor Belloc Jebb, who had been sent by her father to meet this rising literary star.
A year after Sister Francis made final profession on July 26, 1947, Mother Immaculata chose her to be part of the band who would go to unknown Roswell, New Mexico on November 7, 1948 to make a new Poor Clare foundation. Less than a decade later, the young Sister Francis was commissioned by her abbess to enter a contest for a book written by an unknown author. When Sister inquired what the book should be about, Mother Immaculata replied, “I don't care, just win the prize. The roof needs to be fixed.” Sister Francis decided to write about the only thing she knew well, the Poor Clare life, and told the story of the Roswell foundation in A Right to Be Merry. The book never made it to the contest, because the author's aunt showed the first chapter to her dinner guest, Frank Sheed, who said, “Get me the rest of that book and I'll publish it.” But the roof did get fixed, since the book became the best seller of 1956. Ignatius Press recently published a new edition of this enduring classic.
Other books followed, despite the fact that the author lived a busy Poor Clare life as secretary, organist, portress, librarian, Latin and music teacher, and the sister in charge of the fruit. Many of her poems were written on the backs of fruit labels carefully removed from cans to save paper since the community was very poor. Sister Francis would go out to mow her lawn (with a push mower!), and come up to her cell to write a few lines of the play she was working on about Our Lady of Guadalupe, “Counted As Mine”, or some other book. She claimed that her books just “wrote themselves”, but other Poor Clares are still waiting for this to happen! Most demanding of her very limited time was the intense study of manuscripts in medieval French sent to her by monasteries abroad to research the life of St. Colette for the book Walled in Light, published in 1959. These years also saw the writing of several more delightful plays, plus another volume of poetry.
On May 19, 1964, the community chose her as its new abbess. The next year Mother Mary Francis was elected head of the recently formed federation of Colettine Poor Clare monasteries in the United States, and began making triennial visitations of the eleven communities scattered throughout the country. Mother served as federal abbess for sixteen years, and as federal councilor for thirteen years. She guided the federation through the stormy post-conciliar years, writing a new text of Constitutions, definitively approved in 1981, which has been taken up by monasteries all over the world. Through numerous articles and a vast correspondence, she encouraged religious on every continent to stand firm in preserving the ideals of religious life which were threatened by too sweeping changes after the Council. Her daughters are especially grateful for her wisdom in retaining the traditional Poor Clare habit which is a cherished symbol of consecration to this day. Her book Marginals, published in 1967, is a commentary on the Vatican II document Perfectae Caritatis and gives valuable guidelines for genuine renewal of religious life (a revised edition of this work has been published by Ignatius Press in 2007, under the title Chastity, Poverty, and Obedience — Recovering the Vision for the Renewal of Religious Life). Several other books were published in 1960s and 1970s.
In 1972, God's call once again sounded in a dramatic way, as the community in Roswell was asked to make its first foundation, restoring the monastery in Newport News, Virginia (this community has now moved to Barhamsville, Virginia). The vocations which had been drawn to Roswell by the charming little book A Right to Be Merry were sent far and wide to spread the ideal of St. Clare. Four foundations and another restoration followed in Alexandria, Virginia (1977), Los Altos Hills, California (1981), Belleville, Illinois (1986), The Netherlands (1990), and Chicago, Illinois (2000). The story of our first five daughterhouses is told in Mother's own inimitable style in Forth and Abroad, published by Ignatius Press in 1997. During these years two more volumes of poetry were published, plus several more books. Mother also made a new translation from the Latin of the Rule and Testament of St. Clare and her four extant letters, as well as a translation from the French of the Testament of St. Colette.
In 2002, Mother was honored with the Pro Fidelitate et Virtute Award by the Institute on Religious Life for her contributions to consecrated life through her books, poetry, and her life of contemplative prayer. In 2004 she celebrated her fortieth anniversary as abbess of the Roswell community, and the sixtieth anniversary of her religious profession. In our October 2005 elections, Mother Mary Francis handed on the service of abbess to her successor, Mother Mary Angela, and received the honorary title of “Mother Emerita” from our bishop, in recognition of her outstanding dedication to God and to the service of her sisters, to whom she would always remain “Mother.”
Shortly after she began this new role in the community, our dear Mother, as she became affectionately known, suffered a serious fall from which she never recovered. Following is the letter written to the community's friends by Mother Angela, telling them of our dear Mother's death:
Peace and blessings
February 16, 2006
Our very dear Friends,
On Saturday, February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, our beloved Mother Mary Francis of Our Lady went forth to meet her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, at 2:35 in the afternoon, surrounded by her spiritual daughters. For one who nurtured a deep and tender devotion to the holy Mother of God all her life, and had written both a play and an operetta in her honor, it was the perfect day for Our Lady to come and call her home.
Many of you already know that on December 14, 2005, our dear Mother Francis suffered a severe fall which fractured several ribs and further injured her already fragile back. Because of her extreme frailty, we did not attempt to take her to the hospital, but cared for her in our own monastery infirmary, with the help of kind doctors and wonderful home-care nurses. The next two months would be a time of great grace for us, as we were privileged to care for our dear Mother, the sisters taking turns being with her at all times.
The first week she was in critical condition, and we feared that she would not be with us for Christmas, as she battled an infection with the help of antibiotics. But on Christmas Day she seemed to rally, and we hoped she would recover, although it was almost certain she would not be able to walk again. The infirmary became a center of love in our monastery, as we gathered to sing Christmas carols with her, and even presented her play, “Christmas at Greccio,” on a very “mini” stage for her enjoyment and delight.
Throughout these weeks, Mother was deeply appreciative of our efforts to care for her. She would greet each sister who came to visit with warmth and very personal love, and brought merriment to our times together with her quick-as-a-flash wit. When she was in pain and restless, she would grow calm as we sang “Ave Maria” or “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee,” and would join in the singing with her sweet voice.
Toward the end of January her condition again worsened, and she began to find it almost impossible to eat or sleep. We would daily lift her from her hospital bed into a comfortable chair, which eased her back pain and gave her some relief. On the afternoon of February 11, feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, as the sisters lifted her back into bed, she suddenly looked up, with her eyes wide open, seeming to look at a distant point, and simply stopped breathing. The community assembled immediately, and we began the prayers for the dying. When we finished the last prayer, asking the Son of God to escort her into the lovely places of paradise that are forever green, she had gone to meet that glorious escort.
Our Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, C.S.B., presided at her funeral Mass on what would have been Mother's eighty-fifth birthday, February 14, 2006. Many friars and priests stood with him around the altar that was banked with the flowers she loved. The pealing of our tower bells and a magnificent organ postlude accompanied the procession of clergy, sisters and pallbearers out to our burial vault where her precious body was laid to rest, awaiting the coming of our Lord in glory. Valentine's Day has always been an especially happy day of community celebration for the gift of our dear Mother's life; this February 14 held a deep and poignant beauty for us as we thanked our heavenly Father for having created so loving and generous a heart, a heart that gloried in giving and in nurturing life. Her life was so full of accomplishments, her personality so rich, and her spirituality so simple and so profound, like the Gospel she professed. It will take time even to begin to plumb the love and gratitude in our hearts for the gift she was, and for the legacy of faithful, wholehearted Poor Clare living she has entrusted to us. Her sisters in cloisters all over the world rise up and call her blessed, giving thanks for the inspiration they have received through her life of outpoured love for Christ, her Lord and Spouse.
Let me conclude this letter with an excerpt from a poem she wrote to honor Our Lady on February 11, 1946, exactly sixty years before the dawning of her eternal tomorrow:
On the spread and numbered moments,
Shall I with surprise
Find your face,
A strange shining
On the floor of my sorrow?
Or with startled cry see in your hands
The final tomorrow,
Having long known
No title becomes you as,
Gratefully and devotedly, in Our Lady of Guadalupe,