St. Clare of Assisi is depicted in a stained-glass window inside the Church of San Damiano.

CNS PHOTO | MICHAEL ALEXANDER

St. Clare of Assisi is depicted in a stained-glass window inside the Church of San Damiano.

June 3, 2013
CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

St. Clare of Assisi fought passionately with the Church hierarchy, gave generously to people in need and helped to launch the world's first peace movement that ended a 300-year war.

"She was of noble birth, one of the 'have' people in the city of Assisi," says writer-actor Maureen Rooney. "As a teenager, she would hide her food in her apron and go for a walk. She'd smuggle food to the lepers, even though she wasn't allowed to go there."

Born Chiara Offreduccio, St. Clare was always devoted to prayer as a child. At age 12, her parents wanted her to marry a young and wealthy man, but she wanted to wait until she turned 18.

By then, she had read St. Francis' teachings and began to change her life. Eventually she ran away to follow St. Francis. She was one of the few to whom he showed his stigmata.

"She was a rule-breaker who broke rules in order to follow a calling. She did it through her entire life," said Rooney.

Rooney and her husband Paul Punyi, along with actor Karen Gartner, performed a dramatic reading of Rooney's play Meet St. Clare of Assisi, May 22 at the Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert.

This was the third performance at Star of the North, and the play also has been shown at teachers' conventions and a few churches across Alberta.

The sellout crowd was moved to tears by St. Clare's story and audience members commented afterwards how much they loved the performance.

In an interview, Rooney said she felt a strong calling, resulting from prayer, to research and present a dramatic performance of a saint.

"I began researching the stories of female saints. I felt a strong need to tell their stories," she said.

She researched the extraordinary lives of St. Clare, St. Joan, St. Julian of Norwich, Blessed Hildegard of Bingen, Margery Kempe, Mother Teresa and the three peasant children of Fatima, St. Lucia in particular.

"St. Clare was one of three that I chose to put together in a single play. When I did that play, I felt after numerous play readings and workshops that the stories stood out much better on their own," she said.

It was too much to perform all three together, and it detracted from the powerful story of each individual, Rooney said.

Rooney and Punyi are a duo of professional actors who have been performing educational theatre since 1979.

The couple raised a family in Alberta, while writing dramatic plays and touring their shows that bring history to life. This year, they were winners of the St. Albert Mayor's Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award.

POWER OF THEATRE

"Theatre can do something that film can't," said Rooney. "Reader's theatre brings in storytelling, and there is something very sacred about storytelling and having people right in the room with you becoming the characters and telling the story."

The audience also learned more from the PowerPoint tour of images of St. Clare's life. The photos were taken during Rooney's trip to Assisi in 2001. She went to San Damiano, the chapel that St. Francis built with his bare hands. It still stands today, and that is where St. Clare lived.

As well, guests had the chance to sample homemade limoncello, an Italian lemon liqueur native to Tuscany. The evening concluded with a deep and peaceful contemplation based on St. Clare's meditation.

"It's a brilliant meditation, a beautiful prayer, that can mean so much to people in our society," said Rooney.

Many are drawn to the story of St. Francis of Assisi, but know nothing of the woman who inspired him. Rooney worked hard to make her story historically accurate.

If St. Clare had wanted to simply be a sister, she would have joined a Benedictine monastery. Instead, she became the first female Franciscan.

JOYOUS POVERTY

She did not want to be cloistered or silenced. She felt that the women should dress in the clothes of the day, and work among the poor. Her Franciscan theology of joyous poverty in imitation of Christ was always evident.

She founded the Order of Poor Ladies, a monastic religious order for women in the Franciscan tradition. She wrote their Rule of Life, the first monastic rule known to have been written by a woman.

Unlike the Franciscan friars whose members moved around the country to preach, St. Clare's sisters lived in enclosure, and their lives consisted of manual labour and prayer.

BECAME ABBESS

Initially, Francis directed the order. St. Clare later accepted the role of abbess of San Damiano. She sought to imitate Francis' virtues and way of life so much that she was often referred to as "another Francis."

She also took care of Francis later in his life, until his death in 1226. St. Clare died in 1253 at age 59. Her feast is Aug. 11. She is the patron saint of television.