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
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
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
“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
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
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
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.