Agnes was the daughter of the King of Bohemia. She tactfully evaded political marriages and spent her life in charitable works for the people in Prague. All went well till the day the Emperor Frederick asked for her hand. Her refusal precipitated an international crisis, and the Pope was obliged to send a legate to protect her. She then requested his permission to found a house of Poor Ladies in Prague, and to enter there, which she did on the feast of Pentecost 1234. Clare, who came to love her dearly, sent sisters from St Damian’s to help her, and over the years wrote her four beautiful letters, which have survived. The Emperor meanwhile is said to have exclaimed, “If she had preferred a fellow mortal to me, I would have killed him, but as she has preferred the King of Kings - I can hardly compete!” Some sources say he made this remark when another Franciscan, St Elizabeth of Hungary, turned him down. His Queens had short and uncomfortable lives and he kept harem of charming Muslim girls. If that were not sufficient inducement to avoid him, he was frequently in a state of excommunication!
Agnes lived with great simplicity and was perhaps one of the most loved saints of all time, she survived the fall of the royal family to which she belonged, and was its last remaining member. She was revered by the people of Prague as an uncrowned queen after the coup d’etat which installed a foreign house, and she died of starvation through refusing to eat more than the food allotted to the poorest of her people. With her the Arpad dynasty ended; she was beatified in 1874 by Pius IX. But her story does not stop there.
Queen of the second spring
After the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1949 chaos and rather haphazard persecution ensued. But on the night of the thirteenth of April 1950 the authorities cracked down on the Church, superiors were arrested, receiving summary sentences of ten to twenty years, congregations were dispersed and put into work camps, only those sisters who worked in hospitals were able to maintain any sort of community life. Subsequently the sisters were imprisoned in ‘concentration convents’ where they worked as slaves of the state. This included the Poor Clares. Naturally none of them were permitted to receive postulants. The Prague spring of Mr. Dubcek came and went, and things were worse than they had been before.
Enter Pope John Paul and Mr. Gorbachev and the still small wind of change.
In 1989, the Holy Father wished to go to Prague to canonise Agnes, and was refused by the authorities. He offered to fly to Prague airport and canonise Agnes without leaving the Airport, which was of course international territory. They answered no. In the end the canonization took place in Rome on the 12 November 1989.
Agnes’ elevation to the altars was also, naturally, a patriotic event and the authorities could find no reason for refusing permission for peaceful processions and other loyal celebrations. It also happened to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of enlightened Soviet rule. Agnes was canonised amid an octave of prayer and celebration. Huge processions, in which hundreds of thousands took part, filled the streets, singing hymns to Agnes. By the 17 November these 'processions' had become tacit demonstrations In the St Wenceslaus Square before government headquarters, the faithful - and hopeful - knelt about her statue praying that all peoples who suffered under oppressive regimes might be liberated by her prayers. On the 28 November, the government resigned.
The truth never dies. This account of the re-founding of the Poor Clares is taken from a book of testimonies produced for the eighth centenary of Clare's birth in 1994.
"My Father was the chairman of the Communist Party in one of our big industrial cities. As the child of a party official I had the best education on offer, and opportunities to travel. As a baby, my Grandfather had me baptised in the Protestant Church. While I was still a child my parents split up. My mother had found someone else and did not want me.
When I was seventeen my Mother contracted cancer of the stomach I went to her and nursed her. Nobody but I knew she was dying. She had had everything; looks, money, status ; they all went. In the end she weighed only 38 kilos, her agony was terrible. Where was God? People who have been brought up as Catholics cannot imagine what life without God is like.
After my mother’s death I happened to attend a reading of the poems of the Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore. I was very moved. After the reading a fellow student offered to see me home. He said to me, “Are you a believer?” And I said [though I did not understand what I was saying] “Yes!” He asked me if I would like to go to Mass with him. Once when I was at school I had gone into a church where mass was going on, but although I was terribly attracted - I ran out immediately. Now I came wanting to stay.
When I told my father I wanted to be a Catholic, he took me to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist said that, unfortunately, I was perfectly sane, so my father turned me out. I wanted to give my life completely to Jesus so I went to live with the Franciscan Sisters of Mercy (a nursing order and still nominally in existence). My novice mistress was my Godmother when I was received into the Church, she gave me a book on St Clare to read and all my new found peace departed - I knew that I had to follow Clare.
I went to the Poor Clares in Poland, though the only common language we had was Russian. I stayed with them for six wonderful months, (which at that time,was the longest period for which you could reside in another Communist country.) On arriving home I was joined by a friend. We made a secret visit to the Capuchiness Clares who were in the Concentration Convent at Osek, but of course, we could not stay. We went to Cardinal Frantizek Tomasek. He received permission from Rome for us to start the Poor Clare life and placed us under the care of the Franciscan Father Provincial. At last I received the habit of St Clare.
We rose at four in the morning, said Morning Prayer and then went out to work; in the evening we said Vespers. The hardship was terrible, after six months my companion’s courage failed and she left. The Prague spring died, the Russian tanks came and Father Provincial was arrested. As they took him away he said over his shoulder, “Let her make her profession, none of us knows now what may happen.”
I made my profession completely alone, my heart was full of joy despite the darkness and need of the hour. Times were terrible. It is hard to remember....
Then two more came to join me. We worked in a University hospital. Our disguised chapel was in a lean-to on the side of the house. The tabernacle was hidden, but there was always a flower in front of it. We could wear our habits only in the house; all our neighbours must have known but they never betrayed us. This was the time when to attend Mass just once meant a two year sentence.
At last I was able to make my solemn profession, surrounded by the love of our small family of sisters and our brothers. As I lay prostrate and the litany was sung over me, I thought, at last I am a real Poor Clare. It had taken ten years.”
The community which ‘Agneza’ helped to found is at Brno in Bohemia