Agnes: the Mission - Monticelli and onwards
Around 1217 St Francis's preaching in Florence made a tremendous impact. Amongst others, a group of women wanted to live the life of the sisters about whom Francis had preached.
On their own initiative these would-be Poor Sisters gathered together in the house of Bella Avvenente di Albizzo degli Amidei degli Ubaldini - Sister Avegnente for short.
The Ubaldini set part of their house aside for them and they lived together trying to find their way to Highest Poverty and Holy Unity with the help of Brother Michele. Like all the first Poor Clares they were of a very different ages and backgrounds. Sassa, Avegnente's widowed sister-in-law, were among those who joined, bringing with her, her daughter, Cara.
A place was offered them outside the city walls at Santa Maria de Santa Sepulchro at Monticelli and Francis promised to send Agnes to help them.
Agnes writes to Clare that the sisters have received her with great love and joy. There are no factions among them, only an unbelievable harmony, and they willingly promise Agnes obedience and reverence as Abbess. They accept the Admonitions and Precepts of Clare (obviously a prototype of Clare’s Form of Life) and Agnes persuades Cardinal Hugolino to have the privilege of poverty extended to Monticelli.
It breaks Agnes's heart to leave San Damiano and she says so, with deep feeling, "I do not expect to see you and my sisters again in this life".
After establishing the community, Agnes sends Sr Giacoma, the companion who came with her from Assisi, to the foundation at Arezzo.
Agnes is Clare’s ambassador to visit, encourage and support 'many monasteries'. She is named as the founder of the community at Arcella in which Blessed Helena Enselmini subsequently became Abbess and where, almost certainly, Agnes met St Anthony. She was directly involved in the foundation at Mantua and spent the later part of her life at Venice. But it was via Monticelli that she returned home in 1252 and, according to Wadding’s Annals, the sisters of Monticelli followed her.
The Death of St Agnes
Agnes sat by Clare’s death bed weeping, begging her, according to the Legenda not to depart. Clare spoke to her almost sharply, "It is pleasing to God that I depart, but stop crying, because you will come to the Lord a short time after me. And the Lord will comfort you greatly after I have left you."
Pope Innocent the IV with his retinue, came up from Perugia to pray before Clare’s dead body, the following day. Agnes would have been there when the Friars began to recite the Office for the Dead and Innocent IV immediately requested the Office of Virgins, thus canonizing her, de facto, then and there. Cardinal Reynaldo begged him to proceed in a more orthodox manner!
Agnes would have walked with Clare’s Vicaress, Benedetta, before the Pope and the Cardinals, as Clare’s body was carried up the steep hill into the city and laid in the same tomb in which Francis's body had rested until it was taken to his Basilica.
It may be Agnes's hand that wrote the letter which was sent to the monasteries telling of Clares death. It has stylistic resemblance to her surviving letter, there is something unbearably intimate in the author’s recollection of Clare’s words. One can hear her voice saying to some sister wearied by the hardships of Poor Clare life, "Bear it courteously", and "Bear the burdens of poverty with patience", and that most beautiful of Clare’s recorded words, "The patience of those whose vision springs from the consideration of the Godhead produces the delights of paradise for the one who is prepared to wait, and will purchase the riches of an eternal reward."
We may never know the great grace that Clare promised to Agnes after Clare's death. But perhaps a phrase from this letter captures something of it in, "the dance of joy that the heavenly armies and the holy spirits perform as they go out to meet her”, the one whom Christ calls.
Agnes died on 27 August 1253. She was 56. Her body lay in state at San Damiano and since only the entrance to it was on the first floor, a rough set of steps was knocked-up to enable the streams of mourners reach the entrance.
Unequal to the strain the stair collapsed, flinging a great a great many people, severely injured, to the ground. These called upon the Blessed Agnes to heal them and the Lord restored them to health. After that devotion to her spread very rapidly!
Agnes was canonized by Benedict XIV in 1753, to honour the fifth centenary of the two saints.