Staying faithful—and faith-filled—can be difficult for anybody. For women who are looking for role models as they make their way along their spiritual journeys, they should look no further than three holy women. Three holy and inspiring women, Saints Clare of Assisi, Julie Billiart, and Angela Merici: Each one was ahead of her time. Dedicated to serving the Lord, they recognized societal needs and sought remedies for these concerns.
Each of these female saints founded a religious order of women with the intent of bringing education to women and care to society’s poor and marginalized.
Their timeless message of compassion for the needy reaches out and grabs us by the heart. It is as pertinent and timely today as it was in their days.
St. Clare of Assisi
Chiara Favarone was born around 1194, in Assisi, Italy, the eldest daughter of a noble family. Her devout mother, Ortolana, named her Chiara (meaning “light”) following a revelatory dream in which Ortolana was told she would give birth to the “light which would illuminate the world.”
The teenaged Chiara, or Clare, heard Francis of Assisi passionately preach about new ways of living the gospel. His words reached right to Clare’s soul: She vowed to answer the Lord’s call. Francis became her confidant and spiritual guide.
As was tradition, Clare’s parents tried to arrange an advantageous marriage for her. Refusing all suitors, Clare ran away and sought refuge with Francis and his community. He immediately accepted her into the gospel life. She received a tonsure, promised obedience to Francis and lived very briefly with neighboring Benedictine sisters who gave her sanctuary.
Her sister Agnes soon joined Clare, who was then living in another religious house nearby. They soon moved to San Damiano, the small chapel outside of Assisi in which Francis had heard the Lord’s call.
Clare worked with Agnes (now St. Agnes of Assisi) and others who joined them to found the Order of Poor Ladies (Poor Clares). They provided a place for women who felt called to live a humble life of prayer and hard work and to share what they had with those in need.
Adopting austere practices, eating little meat, speaking only when necessary and living in strict poverty, the members of the new foundation eventually become enclosed. Clare’s Order depended on alms for both subsistence and the ability to travel to establish new foundations. Their lack of “land-based revenues” was a new concept.
Clare was appointed abbess in 1216. Following Agnes’s example, Clare’s mother, Blessed Ortolana, her younger sister, Beatrice, and other relatives joined the group at San Damiano. Clare considered Francis her spiritual father; she was his confidante and cared for him during his last illness before his death in 1226.
In 1234, the convent at San Damiano faced attack by marauding soldiers. Rising from her sickbed, Clare carried the Blessed Sacrament to where the soldiers would see it. Asking the Lord to hear her prayers and save her sisters, she heard the following reply: “I will protect them as I always have and always will.” History recounts that the soldiers retreated from the area, never attacking San Damiano.
Clare died on August 11, 1253, just two days after Pope Innocent IV confirmed Clare’s Rule. She was 59. She was canonized two years later in 1255. The Poor Ladies’ name was officially changed to the Order of Saint Clare in 1263. Today they are commonly known as Poor Clares.
In 1958, Pope Pius XII designated Clare as the patron saint of television as a result of an event near the end of her life. Clare was bedridden and too ill to attend Mass, but she was able to see—miraculously—the Mass on the wall of her room! The scope of Clare’s patronage also includes communication services (telephone, telegraph and TV writers), eyes, eye diseases, needleworkers, goldsmiths, launderers and good weather. Her feast day is August 11.
Today, the Poor Clares number approximately 17,000 sisters living in about 1,000 monasteries/convents in 67 countries. Their timeless dedication to contemplative prayer for others and refusal to rely upon worldly goods provide a shining example of piety, love of the Lord and faith in the 21st century and beyond.
It was the poor and abandoned who touched the heart of Julie Billiart. It was they who prompted her to found the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, devoted to the Christian education of girls, the training of teachers and to making God’s goodness known.
Marie-Rose-Julie, the seventh of eight children, was born July 12, 1751, in Cuvilly, France, to a farmer and his wife. Julie loved attending her one-room school. She excelled in the religious instruction offered by the parish priest. He recognized her remarkable devotion and allowed her to make her First Communion at the early age of nine.
A constant help to her parents, in her spare time Julie gathered the local children to teach them the catechism and read Gospel stories to them. At the age of 14, she took a private vow of chastity, dedicating her life to serve the Lord by teaching the poor.
In 1774, when Julie was 23 years old, she was seated next to her father when a gunshot rang out. The shot had been fired into their home! Was it an accident or an attempted murder of her father? The shock of the event left Julie paralyzed, a painful condition she would have for most of her adult life. St. Julie Billiart, Artist Unknown.
Julie, ever devout, spent long hours in prayer. People from all walks of life came to seek her counsel in her humble home. She soon came to be known as “la devoté” for encouraging the people to refuse to accept the schismatic priest in the parish.
The terrors of the French Revolution forced Julie to relocate to Amiens, where she met Françoise Blin de Bourdon, the Viscountess of Gazaincourt, who had suffered during the Reign of Terror (September 1793 to July 1794). The two devoted women became inseparable friends and co-workers in their desire to restore religion and the faith of the people through education.
In 1803, at the request of the bishop of Amiens, Julie and Françoise welcomed eight orphans to their first classes in their small convent. On February 2, 1804, Julie, Françoise and another woman consecrated themselves as a community to serve the poor and the abandoned.
Father Varin, their spiritual adviser, gave them a provisional rule which, it is said, was so ahead of its time that its essential aspects have never needed to be changed. In June 1804, Julie was cured of her paralysis while she made a novena in obedience to her confessor. Sixteen months later, Julie and Françoise, along with a handful of other interested young women, took their first vows as a community.
The founding of the Sisters of Notre Dame did not proceed without its disagreements with various Church leaders, one of which resulted in the relocation of their motherhouse to Namur, Belgium, in 1809.
Mother Julie spent her declining years caring for soldiers injured at the Battle of Waterloo (1815). In January of 1816, Mother Julie fell gravely ill. After three months of pain, she died with the Magnificat on her lips. She was 65.
Mother Julie Billiart was beatified in 1906 and canonized in 1969. Her feast day is April 8. This woman of vision—often heard uttering, “Ah, qu’il est bon, le bon Dieu!” [Oh, how good the good God is!]—is the patroness of catechists. St. Julie’s vision is alive in the approximately 2,000 Sisters of Notre Dame who serve on five continents.
Finding God in daily life, serving God in people around her, Angela Merici created a surprising new way of life. Her spiritual family now includes the Company of St. Ursula for single women and the Order of St. Ursula for women religious.
Angela grew up on her family’s farm in northern Italy, where she was born around 1474. She and her siblings worked together and got in trouble together. Angela longed to imitate these friends of God.
Death ruptured this happy circle, first taking her older sister. Angela was devastated—and worried. Was her mischievous sister in heaven? One day, she had a consoling experience: Angela saw her sister, happy in heaven.
Still a teenager, Angela lost both parents. While her older brothers tried to keep up the farm, she and a younger brother went to live with an uncle and aunt who were eager to arrange a marriage for her. Their plans and Angela’s vocation were on a collision course.
Angela sensed God’s call to a deep intimacy with him. The more her guardians tried to find a husband, the more she resisted.
She sought guidance from Franciscan friars and joined the Third Order (now called the Secular Franciscan Order) for lay persons. Its spiritual practices deepened her prayer life. Finally, her family accepted Angela’s desire to devote herself to God alone.
Soon she was back on the farm. One day during the olive harvest, Angela had another visionary experience: women and angels on a ladder between heaven and earth. She understood that someday she would establish a group of women consecrated to God.
Meanwhile, Angela’s days began with Mass and were punctuated by prayer. She worked with neighbors and helped out where needed. People turned to her for wisdom and comfort. The sadness of her own losses had taught her deep compassion for others. When the friars asked her to console a widow whose three children had died, Angela visited her in the war-torn city of Brescia. This became the place for her life’s work.
Soon Brescians discovered Angela’s goodness and wisdom. Husband and wife quarrelling? Talk with Angela! Should I propose marriage? Consult Angela! Doubts about faith? Turn to Angela! One time she persuaded two sworn enemies to call off a duel.
Angela encouraged women and men who were caring for orphans and the dying, trying to heal their ravaged city. She encountered other single women who knew that God was calling them, but not to marriage or religious life—
the only paths open to women at that time.
They wanted to learn from her experience of intimacy with God. On November 25, 1535, Angela and 28 other women consecrated themselves to Christ under the patronage of St. Ursula, an early martyr and leader of women. By her death in 1540, the Company had 150 members.
Ursulines still live as Angela did, dedicated to Christ and serving others in ordinary circumstances, as single laywomen. The Company of St. Ursula now exists in 20 countries.
The Company spread throughout Italy and into France. There, in the early 1600s, French Ursulines took another step, becoming a religious order. These women pioneered education for young women; their life and mission has spread around the globe.
St. Angela Merici was canonized in 1807. Her feast day is celebrated on January 27.
By following in the footsteps of these female saints, you'll find new ways to dedicate your life to serving God.
This blog was written by Vicky Hébert and Denis Sabourin. Sister Louanna Orth, S.N.D. de N., and Sister Roberta McKelvie, O.S.F., contributed.