Saints for Our Times: St. Collette reformed the Poor Clares in the 1400s
By Mary Lou Gibson
The Hundred Years’ War from 1337 to 1453 pitted the kings and kingdoms of France and England against each other. The armies of both sides caused hideous casualties and destruction of land and people. Into this time, a daughter was born in 1381 at Corbie, near Amiens, France, to elderly parents (her mother was 60). She was baptized Nicolette in gratitude to St. Nicholas of Myra for her birth. Her father, Robert Bodet (or Boilet) was a carpenter who worked at Corbie’s Benedictine Abbey.
Her parents died when she was 18 and Dom de Roye, the Benedictine abbot of Corbie, became her guardian. Omer Englebert writes in “Lives of the Saints” that Colette, as she was called, refused to be married and distributed all her goods to the poor. She had a natural inclination for prayer and meditation and tried different ways to live a spiritual life, first as a Benedictine, then as a Beguine.
Neither place satisfied her desire for prayer, penance and seclusion. She then became a tertiary of St. Francis and her guardian authorized her to take a vow of seclusion. For the next three years, Colette lived in a cell between two buttresses of Notre Dame de Corbie. The fighting between the French and English raged on and so many died that there were few left to bury the dead. The church was also in distress and the West was in full schism.
Colette became well known for her holiness and spiritual wisdom. Editor Michael Walsh writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that she began to have visions in which St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare of Assisi appeared to her. According to Rosemary Guiley in the “Encyclopedia of Saints,” they instructed her to begin a reform of the Poor Clares. This was a contemplative Order of nuns founded by St. Clare of Assisi and St. Francis of Assisi in 1212.
Woodeene Koenig-Bricker writes in “365 Saints” that by the early 15th century, the Poor Clares had lost much of its original spirit and had fallen into lax ways. Walsh writes that Colette hesitated and did not immediately answer the charge that St. Francis gave her of restoring the first rule of St. Clare in all its original severity. After, she was struck blind for three days and dumb for three days more, Colette recognized this as a sign from heaven and left her cell.
Walsh writes that she dressed in a habit made up of patches, and set out barefoot for Nice to see Peter de Luna, the antipope recognized by France as Benedict XIII. He was much impressed with her and gave her the veil and seraphic cord and named her superior of all the convents she might reform or found. She set out on her travels in 1406 and went from convent to convent. She believed she had found her true vocation at last –– to restore the Poor Clares to their original charism, especially as regards absolute poverty.
Many times she encountered fierce opposition to her reforms and was sometimes treated as a fanatic and sorcerer. Eventually, she met with a more favorable reception, especially in Savoy. Besanςon was the first house of Poor Clares to receive her revised rule in 1410. For the next 40 years she traveled all over France and Savoy founding 17 convents with the reformed rule and reforming several older convents. Guiley writes that Colette’s reforms included: going barefoot, perpetual fasts and abstinence. She established her Colettine reforms in convents in France, Germany and the Low Countries. Poor Clare nuns observe the Gospel life lived within the bounds of papal enclosure. The nuns take vows of obedience, poverty, chastity and enclosure. They are the most austere women’s order of the Roman Catholic Church devoted to prayer, penance, contemplation and manual work.
The Colettine Poor Clares are a reform branch of the Order of St. Clare. They follow the interpretation of the Rule of St. Clare established by Colette in 1410. Today, the Colettine Poor Clares are mostly in France. Several houses of Franciscan friars also accepted her reforms.
In time, Colette became renowned for her sanctity, ecstasies and visions of the Passion. She worked many miracles and had many mystical experiences that included a mystical marriage with St. John the Apostle early in her religious life.
Colette is venerated as the patron saint of women seeking to conceive, expectant mothers and sick children. She was beatified in 1740 by Pope Clement XII and canonized in May 1807 by Pope Pius VII. Her feast day is March 6. Her attribute is a lamb depicted as a Poor Clare with bare feet.
The first U. S. monastery of the Order of St. Clare was built in Cleveland in 1877. Today, there are monasteries in California, Illinois and South Carolina.