ON THIS DATE in 1212, eighteen-year-old Clare of Assisi fled her home in modern-day Italy to become the first female to join the order of Saint Francis. More than seven centuries later, Pope Pius XII designated Clare the patron saint of … television? The first female Franciscan had taken a vow of poverty at eighteen and owned nothing, much less a flat screen TV, but she did watch — legend has it — a Mass on the wall of her room when she was too ill to attend a celebration of the Last Supper. That tale, true or not, compelled the pope in 1958 to link her to the electronic screens that bring us “SpongeBob Squarepants.”
Little is known of Clare’s early life, although some biographers have described her as a blond-haired beauty from a wealthy, fatherless family. After resisting efforts to marry her off, she heard Saint Francis preach on the Christian virtues of humility and poverty and raced to join Saint Francis’ order — she was the first woman to do so. Clare took the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, cut her hair, and donned a sackcloth tunic. Initially, female Franciscans wore no stockings, shoes, or sandals, slept on the ground, and spoke as little as possible.
In 1215, Francis made the reluctant Clare the abbess, or leader, of a convent that became known as the Order of the Poor Ladies, or Poor Clares. Joined by sisters Agnes (who became Saint Agnes) and Beatrice, Clare governed her convent for nearly four decades, despite frequent illness during the last 27 years of her life. Depending solely on alms (money or food given to the poor), the Poor Clares had established 150 monasteries throughout Europe by the time of her death in 1253.