Celebrating Franciscan Women

Monday, October 8, 2012 1:30:00 AM

By Linda Steiner

For Sister Ramona Miller, the collection of materials Stritch has on Franciscan women allows her to refocus on “the holy ones with fire in their bellies.”

For Sister Ingrid Peterson, the collection is all about identifying with these women, how they looked around them, saw human needs and responded to them.

The two Franciscan scholars and authors on the life of St. Clare say that what Stritch has in its Franciscan Center library is nothing short of a treasure.

“This is a place where a whole new generation of scholarship is being born,” Sister Ingrid said.

And, unfortunately, few people in the University community even know about it.

Located on the second floor of the University library are row after row of black, three-ring binders with materials on the men and women of the three Franciscan orders. The materials, which come from a variety of sources – some primary, some written by researchers – are in English and several foreign languages.

The collection on the men, which includes St. Francis, St. Bonaventure, and other well-known Franciscans, is much more extensive. But it’s the women who are growing in stature, understanding and admiration as materials by and about them become more widely available.

And it’s about time, says Sister Margaret Klotz, OSF, Ph.D., director of the Franciscan Center.

“It’s wonderful,” said Sister Margaret, who will teach a graduate class on the Franciscan intellectual tradition starting this fall. “Now I don’t have to teach them just about Bonaventure and Duns Scotus. I can teach them about Veronica, and Juliana, and Margaret of Cortona,” she said, referring to several Franciscan women whose lives are detailed in the collection. “So it’s not just a one-sided body of information.”

And what’s exciting about these Franciscan women, whose materials span from St. Clare (1193-1253) to the present, is the variety of backgrounds and cultures from which they came, the multi-faceted experiences they had, and how they came to know God and touched and transformed lives. They run the gamut from a woman with an illegitimate child who later was canonized, to actresses and artists, and those whose entire lives would be considered more traditionally saintly.

“I could just sit down with any of these women and just get engrossed in what they did,” Sister Margaret said. “And I get very excited about this (body of knowledge) because I watched it grow from virtually nothing.”

Much of the collection is the result of work done by Father Francis Dombrowski, OFM, a Capuchin who has searched the nation for Franciscan materials to house in one location. About the time the Franciscan Center started at Stritch in 1997, the Capuchins were closing their library at the St. Lawrence Seminary in Mount Calvary, Wis. Half of their collection was sent to the Chicago Theological Union, the remainder to Stritch. Father Francis was on the committee that arranged to donate the materials. Since then, he has continued to gather materials from wherever he can find them – from other universities, religious encyclopedias, the Internet – sent them to Stritch and arranged for translations into English.

“Franciscan women have done great things in their lives, but they’re not known, and that’s one of the reasons we set this up, to make them known,” Father Francis said.

What is it about these women that makes them valuable today, not only to scholars but also to anyone who simply wants a good story? There’s a basic Franciscan commonality to them, Sister Margaret said. Regardless of who they were or when they lived, the concept that God is good and forgiving and compassionate comes through. “And if you believe that God is good, you treat people that way ... .They all lived it differently, yet they are all the same ... . It’s not just a head thing. It’s a heart thing. It’s a way of life.”

Some were poor farmers, some were from nobility, sent to convents because they were not considered marriageable. Many were Third Order lay Franciscans, ordinary people from ordinary surroundings.

“That’s how God works; you don’t have to have credentials,” Father Francis said.

Although many were in what would be considered traditional women’s roles, there were others who stand out because of their ability to stand up, fearlessly, for what they believed.

“When you have a Caritas (Pirckheimer), an abbess of her community who stood up against the early Lutherans (in times of great peril for cloistered nuns), that’s not a typical woman thing, and we need to know more about those kinds of women!” Sister Margaret said.

What runs through them all, according to Sister Coletta Dunn, OSF, Ph.D., of the Religious Studies department at Stritch, is their mutuality, their focus on the importance of relationships and sharing.

“When I study a person, I’m inspired and motivated,” said Sister Clare Ahler, OSF, who works in the Franciscan library cataloging information for the collection. “It’s not just curiosity, ‘Oh, she was weird, she did strange things.’ But it’s, ‘How does this connect with who I am?’ The person is the vehicle for the message, and the message should touch you. But often that’s easier when it comes through a person rather than studying theoretical virtues.”

The Franciscan women’s stories and their messages were ignored for so long, Sister Margaret said, because their roles were different. Over the centuries, they were much less “in the world” than men; they simply did not have the freedom. Many were cloistered. Many went from the family home to the husband’s home. Many of the early Franciscan women could not write; they were less educated than men, and they certainly were not teachers at universities, such as Bonaventure, Roger Bacon and Duns Scotus. Additionally, there has been a general lag in the dissemination of information about Franciscans in general. Only since the 1970s have the writings of St. Francis begun to be widely translated into English.

“This collection just broadens the scope of who we are attached to and who we walked with and continue to walk with,” Sister Margaret said.

Father Francis, who helps run the Dwelling Place Spirituality Center, on the south side of Milwaukee, said he is particularly pleased when he can secure the personal writings, in diaries and letters, of Franciscan women. Many are in Europe and not readily available, but occasionally he comes across a find.

“These women often were told by their confessors to write, to express their feelings. We can learn much from these writings about how God deals with the human heart, about the feelings of desolation, abandonment.” All these kinds of writings make the Franciscans and their experiences more real, more universal, and more approachable, he said.

His personal goal is to collect as many life stories of Franciscan women, whom he calls “real people of action,” as possible. Stritch now has materials, some detailed, some sketchier, on about 1,350 of them.

For so long, sources on Franciscan women have been scattered in so many different places, Sister Ramona said. What she finds so valuable as a scholar, working as the director of spiritual formation at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., and as a leader of Franciscan pilgrimages, is that so much information is now easily available in one place.

“Anyone who wants to get at the heritage, to look at ‘Where were the women; what’s the women’s story?’ can get it at Stritch. There is no other place that I know of that has this.”

Use of this material can run from a topic for a speech, to a research paper or dissertation, to simply getting personal inspiration. Although not all of the materials at Stritch are in English, “you can always find something,” Father Francis said. “If you are interested in the Franciscan heritage, life stories, or the spiritual wisdom of Franciscan women, this would be the place to go.”

There is also a growing interest these days, Sister Ramona said, in scholarly research on saints: who they were in reference to history, and what they have to say to contemporary people.

“It’s encouraging to know that there were women of free spirit so many centuries before us ... who broke through blindnesses with respect to society’s needs and who were teaching ideas that were not always offered in the institutional church ... . And some of them were just plain characters. These are women who have personality!”

Father Francis agreed about what these stories have to say. “When you find stories like Eve Lavalliere, a French comedienne and actress who was able to grow in holiness in the secular Franciscan order, it’s not just that she is interesting. Her story is beautiful, and it can perhaps give people hope.”

One of the ways a group of contemporary Franciscans tap into the various Franciscan personalities and messages is through a group called the Roundtable. For more than four years, about a dozen individuals have been meeting once a month to study Franciscan women and find ways to help make them more widely known.

Initially the group focused primarily on personal enrichment. Their goals grew to include looking at a specific woman and creating a vehicle through which to share that woman’s messages for today.

The group is studying the life of Luitgard of Wittichen (1291-1348). Born with a  deformity to wealthy farmer parents who often gave lodging to travelers, she was a generous, kind child who touched others with her calm spirit in the face of cruel ridicule. She entered cloistered life at age 12 and went on to build a convent in the Black Forest for 34 women.

The Roundtable group is interested in Luitgard because of her concern for the human person and her generosity to those in need. She was a woman who suffered very real pain and doubt. Little of her original words have survived, but translations about her are continuing to surface.

The group is working on creating a piece of historical fiction that could be made public through a play or a publication or perhaps a video. Ideas kicked around also include working with the theater or art departments at Stritch to bring Luitgard more vividly to life.

At a recent meeting of the group, Father Jerry Schroeder, OFM Cap., the co-director of the Dwelling Place, stressed capturing her story with language to which people can relate.

“You can’t use religious language, you can’t use terms like ‘communion of saints.’ It doesn’t mean anything to most people,” he said. “Communion of saints really is about relationships. …We live in a very disconnected world, where relationships are thrown out the window. That could be one of the things to stress in these stories.”

Sister Adele Thibaudeau, OSF, of Campus Ministry at Stritch, who also is a member of the Roundtable, expressed concerns about different writing styles in scenes that already had been written and how things could be brought together in a uniform voice and a cohesive manner. But despite their differences, the group worked together at trying to create something that will, ultimately, express the energy and connectivity associated with this Franciscan woman.

“We’re still trying to figure out the best way to do this,” Sister Margaret said, “but in addition to the project, what’s important is the journey.”

Through its journeys, in collecting and researching materials, arranging for translations, examining drama or other forms of art as means of expression, the focus on the Franciscan tradition – and with the new twist of including the women -- Stritch really is on the cutting edge, Sister Ramona said.

“It brings about a heightened spirit and a sense of joy,” she said. “It’s just so exciting.”

A sidebar to the story included the following profiles of Franciscan women:

Sister Maria Innocentia (Berta Hummel) (1909-1946)

The porcelain figurines inspired by the artwork of this German Franciscan known as “the Little Bumblebee” are world renowned, and the sale of her art kept her convent alive during the time of the Nazis, when all other support was gone. Born in Bavaria, she was a bright and bubbly child, gifted artistically. She attended the Academy of Applied Arts in Munich, and, while there, she met two Franciscan sisters and ultimately became a nun. She joined the Franciscan Abbey of Siessen, which included about 250 sisters, mostly teachers, and focused on teaching art in the convent school. When her fellow sisters needed income, they sent some or her drawings and sketchings to a publishing house that specialized in religious artwork and the works were reproduced on postcards. In 1934, a collection of her drawings, “Das Hummel Buch,” was published and later purchased by a craftsman at a porcelain factory that was going bankrupt. He told the owner, Franz Goebel, they should make the joyous, childlike drawings into figurines. Because their sale could save the jobs of the factory workers and support the sisters, Sister Maria agreed to the collaboration. Interest in the figurines took off after a 1935 display at the Leipzig Fair. The Nazis hated the so-called Hummels because they considered them an inaccurate and frivolous depiction of the master race and they banned their distribution in Germany. But they allowed Sister Maria to continue to draw – she has left a legacy of fine religious art and nature scenes -- and take half the profits. With the income, the convent was able to weather the war. Goebel Co. artists to this day base their figurines on the artwork of Sister Maria, and a percentage of the profits still supports the convent.

Eve Lavalliere (1866-1929)

This lay Third-Order Franciscan gave up a lavish, flamboyant lifestyle as the queen of the French light-comedy stage, donated her vast wealth to the poor, and spent her last years in works of charity after being touched by the teachings of a parish priest who was in charge of a country house she rented. Eve Levalliere was born in Toulon, France. Her father murdered her mother and committed suicide when she was a teenager, and she lived for a time with a dour aunt before being thrown out of another family home by an uncle. On her own, she made her way to Paris, where she worked hard to become an actress. She started at second-rate cabarets but perfected her voice and diction, and by the early 1900s ruled the Varietés stage. She lived as the mistress of the director and had an illegitimate daughter; and her Paris apartment was known for its beautiful art, furniture and lively conversation. Before a planned tour to the United States, she took a rest in the country on property attached to a parish to study her part, which had been written just for her. The parish priest told her that everyone in the environs was expected to attend Mass, and shamed her into attending. Once there, his sermons on penitents and a book on Mary Magdalene that he gave her moved her greatly. Her maid took religious instruction from the priest and Eve also attended the sessions. The interaction also played a part in her conversion. At age 51, she cancelled her long-desired U.S. tour, sold everything, gave up the stage and returned to the church she had truly loved as a child. She wanted to become a Carmelite nun, but she was not accepted, primarily because of bad health and her tarnished reputation. In 1920, she was received into the secular Third Order of St. Francis. She moved to the village of Thuillieres and dedicated herself to charitable work. The epitaph she wrote for herself reads: “I have left everything for God. He alone is sufficient for me.”

Mother Marianne Cope (1838-1918)

Truly reflecting the life of Saint Francis, Mother Marianne spent 30 years in Hawaii caring for lepers. Her mother died when she was young, leaving her to tend to her five siblings. She worked in a factory in Utica, N.Y., to help with income until she was 24, but a month after her father’s death, she joined the Franciscans. She served as an educator and helped establish two hospitals in central New York. In 1877, she was elected the second provincial leader of the Syracuse community. On the plea of a Hawaiian legislator for a “noble Christian priest, preacher or sister” to “sacrifice a life to console these poor wretches,” she moved to Hawaii, 10 years after Father Damien DeVeuster had arrived. He was the first resident missionary at a leper colony and earned worldwide acclaim, but he ultimately contracted the disease and died. Mother Marianne, who never was widely known outside Hawaii, maintained strict rules of hygiene for herself and her Sisters and none fell victim to leprosy. No task was too menial for her and she did much to improve deplorable conditions, including bringing flowers, trees and shrubs to beautify a desolate area. She earned derision as well as admiration for some of her health-focused policies, which included separating healthy children of lepers from their parents and forbidding young girls in her charge to marry men in advanced stages of the disease. She was once the target of a kidnap/murder plot that was foiled when a former resident of her girls’ home caught wind of it. The home’s residents organized a planned defense that included sharpening a hatchet, but the plotters heard of the preparations and gave up their plan. Upon her death, a Hawaiian newspaper eulogized her, saying, “Throughout the islands the memory of Mother Marianne is revered. She impressed everyone as a real mother to those who stood so sorely in need of mothering.”

Sister Caritas Pirckheimer (1467-1532)

This educated, cultured Poor Clare stood up to the heads of the newly formed Lutheran religion at a time of great peril for Catholic nuns and, because of her remarkable powers of intellect and persuasion, was given permission for her convent to remain intact. Born in Eichstatt to a highly educated, pious and prestigious family, Caritas enrolled at the school of the Monastery of St. Clare in Nuremberg in 1479. By age 37, she was elected abbess, after spending 25 years in the cloister, first as a pupil and then as a nun. She was close to her brother, Willibald, one of the leading humanists of the Renaissance, who provided her with classical literature. Although learned, she remained affable and modest. In the early 16th century, a cry for Church reform in Germany led to the rise of the Lutheran religion, and in 1525, the Nuremberg town council officially accepted Luther’s teachings. In the name of “uniformity of the faith,” other religious entities were ordered to do likewise. Monasteries and church properties were confiscated, priests removed, and nuns, sometimes forcibly, were “freed” from their vows and sent to their homes. Angry crowds attacked religious edifices and their inhabitants. Caritas admitted that the Church needed reform but insisted it must come from within and that vows made to God were inviolate. Because of her skilled and reasoned pleadings, new entrants to the convent were disallowed, but those who wished to remain – and only one left -- were allowed to stay and live their lives of prayer and seclusion until they died. Caritas and her Sisters passed the rest of their lives in relative peace.

St. Margaret of Cortona (1247-1297)

This beautiful Italian farmer’s daughter lived as a nobleman’s mistress and bore him a son. But when he was killed, she saw his death as a sign from God, changed her life and became a lay Third-Order Franciscan and ultimately a saint. She founded a convent devoted to the care of the poor, a hospital, and a group of Franciscans who cared for prisoners. She was canonized in 1728. Margaret’s mother died when she was 9 years old; her father neglected her and remarried a stern woman. At age 18, Margaret fled her home to live with Arsenio, the young lord of Montepulciano, who, because of his rank and her lowly status, could not marry her. They lived a life of luxury together. One day, Arsenio did not return from a trip, but his dog did, tugged at Margaret’s skirt and led her to his body. In shock, and with her son in tow, she tried to return to her father’s home. But her stepmother would not take them in because of the dishonor. Grief stricken, she walked to Cortona to seek help from the Franciscans who resided there. Two ladies who were devoted to the Franciscan order introduced her to the Friars Minor. For a time, Margaret lived in a cell near the friars, cared for children, women in childbirth and the ladies of the community, and, under the friars’ direction, developed her prayerful life. The ladies paid for her son’s education, and he ultimately became a Franciscan friar. Never feeling quite free of the guilt associated with her former life, Margaret threw herself into prayer and contemplation, embraced severe self-discipline and asceticism, and became a mystic. At one point, she even sought to disfigure herself to erase her beauty and focus on her communion with God, but those around her stopped her. Some accused her of madness and hypocrisy, but after a time, when she spoke in public, people came from far around to hear her and she gave counsel to penitents.