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The Coming of the Poor Clares to America


Sister Olivia Wassmer, O.S.C.

     Today many people are interested in their genealogy, and trace their roots back to the home country. The genealogy of Jesus goes all the way back to Abraham, of the land of Ur. The genealogy of the Poor Clares goes all the way back to Clare of Assisi, and the Umbrian Valley in Italy. On the night of Palm Sunday, 1212, in the chapel of the Portiuncula, the Lady Clare knelt before Francis to put aside all her worldly wealth and prestige for the sake of the poor Christ.

Francis gave her the course habit of his Lady Poverty, cut her golden hair, and bade her follow in the footsteps of the poor Christ of the Gospel. The genealogy of the Poor Clares who came to America and made the first permanent foundation likewise goes back to Italy. To Rome, to be exact. From ancient times, on the Viminal Hill in Rome, there stood an abbey erected by Benedictine monks on the place where Saint Lawrence was martyred. When the monks left this site in the thirteenth century, their monastery was given to the daughters of Saint Clare. Thus, San Lorenzo in Panisperna, as a Poor Clare monastery, dates back to the time of Clare herself. And it was from San Lorenzo that the two Bentivoglio sisters commenced their journey to America.

Political upheavals

    Many a new beginning was made because of political or financial upheaval, whether in the secular world or the religious world. So also the spread of the Poor Clares to the United States is directly related to the political upheavals in Italy in the nineteenth century. Earlier attempts had been made to found Poor Clare monasteries in America, but they had failed. In 1798, an attempt was made by three Poor Clares fleeing from France during the Reign of Terror. Their story is similar to that of the Italian Poor Clares, with one important difference: the French nuns returned to France after the death of their abbess in 1804.  The Bentivoglio sisters never returned to Italy, although they were advised - and sometimes tempted -- to do so.


    The parents of our founding mothers were Count Domenico Bentivoglio of Bologna, and Angela Sandred, a descendant of a French family. Domenico fought in the Napoleonic Wars, holding the rank of colonel. After Napoleon's defeat, the count returned to Bologna, but soon afterwards moved to Rome. There he served as a general in the Papal army during the pontificates of Gregory XVI and Pius IX. The Bentivoglios' twelfth child was born on July 29, 1854. She was christened Anna Maria, but very soon she was dubbed Annetta, a name more suited to her lively personality. Constance was the fourteenth of the sixteen Bentivoglio children. She retained her baptismal name at the time of her investiture as a Poor Clare, but Annetta chose the name of Mary Magdalen, her childhood heroine. As was customary in wealthy families at the time, the Bentivoglio children were placed in boarding schools at an early age. Annetta was enrolled at Trinita dei Monti in Rome where her next older sister, Elena, was also a student, and where another sister, Agata, was already a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart, an institute founded by a family friend, St. Madelaine Sophie Barat.

A lively child

    As a child, Annetta was quite mischievous and self-willed, and often merited punishment for her pranks. But the lively mischievous child had other qualities. There was her love of prayer, nurtured by a loving family life. When his children were away, the count would indicate to them by letter the special prayers they were to say in union with the rest of the family at home. Annetta was also known for her will to be good and her thoughtfulness of others as well. "I will be good" was her New Year resolution for 1840. In 1842, Annetta was sent to school in Turin where her sister, Madame Agata, was then living. She remained there until the spring of 1848, when the Jesuits were expelled from Turin and convents were threatened with the same fate. Political upheavals were already setting the stage for Annetta's future. Count Domenico died in 1851, and his widow followed him in 1860. Most of their children had already married or joined religious communities. Annetta, having refused a promising offer of marriage, remained at home with her sisters, Constance and Matilda. But since unmarried girls of such a young age could not live alone, Pope Pius 1X, in grateful memory of the services of Count Domenico, appointed his majordomo, Cardinal Barromeo, their guardian. After much searching, the cardinal found a convent that would board his young charges. To a vivacious and independent person like Annetta, this kind of enforced enclosure was repugnant.

M. Constance Bentivoglio

Difficult times

    Constance entered the Poor Clares at San Lorenzo in 1864. Annetta was undecided which religious order she should join and had been praying over this matter for some time. After learning that Matilda was intent on joining the Clares, Annetta also requested admission as a postulant. She entered July 16, 1864, and received the habit on October 4, 1865. Due to a serious illness, Matilda left the convent. Annetta remained, but kept in close contact with Matilda, and it is through their correspondence that much information concerning the American foundation was preserved for posterity.



    During the next ten years, Sister Mary Magdalen concentrated on leading the contemplative life to the best of her ability, following in the footsteps of St. Clare. During the same period, things were going from bad to worse for the church in Italy. The government closed or confiscated innumerable convents and monasteries, appropriated their revenues, and left many religious homeless. At the same time, there was a dearth of religious in the new and burgeoning country of America. Mother Ignatius Hayes, founder of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, took notice of the situation and turned to the "Old Country" for recruits. She first sought to enlist other Third Order Franciscans, but not finding the help she expected in that quarter, she looked to see if perhaps the Poor Clares would be willing to go to the United States. When she visited the monastery of San Lorenzo in Panisperna, three sisters manifested their willingness to answer her invitation to make a Poor Clare foundation in Belle Prairie, Minnesota, where she had forty acres and buildings at her disposal. When the intricacies of obtaining all the necessary permissions had been overcome, Pius IX chose Sisters Mary Magdalen and Constance Bentivoglio to make the foundation, appointing Magdalen foundress and Constance vicaress. They were to be accompanied by a Franciscan, Father Paulino de Castellaro, who was also to be their spiritual director and chaplain after they reached their destination.

Apostolic blessing

    On August 12, 1875, Father Paolino and Mother Ignatius Hayes arrived at San Lorenzo to conduct Magdalen and Constance to the Vatican for an audience with Pope Pius IX. Speaking of this audience in her memoirs, Magdalen wrote: "The Holy Father bestowed his apostolic blessing upon all the people present. Then, making once more the sign of the cross over us, he departed, leaving us deeply touched at his truly paternal affection, and filled with courage to do God's holy will."

    The two sisters would need all the courage they could muster, because it would take them three whole years to arrive at the site of their first permanent monastery in America. After leaving their cloister, the first few days were spent making farewell visits to their native Italy.

    After that, their journey took them to Nice, where Father Bernardine of Portogruaro was holding canonical visitation. He was not only the minister general, but had also been a strong influence in Magdalen's religious formation. On August twenty-third, in the Ursuline Convent at Nice, Father Bernardine canonically transferred the Bentivoglio sisters from the Urbanist Observance to the Primitive Observance, thus removing them from the San Lorenzo jurisdiction. He likewise handed them formal letters of obedience commissioning them to establish the Primitive Rule of St. Clare in America. From Nice they proceeded to Marseilles, where Magdalen and Constance spent eighteen days with the Poor Clares learning something about the observance of the Primitive Rule which they were to establish in America.

Arrival in New York

    On September eleventh, they went aboard the Castalia, the steamer that was to carry them across the Atlantic. Though the weather remained calm, seasickness claimed its toll of passengers, Magdalen among them. On October tenth, toward evening, a little bird entered the sisters' sitting room window, "giving us, as it were, the first welcome to our new home." Finally, early on the morning of the twelfth, land was sighted. Magdalen's seasickness immediately vanished. The Castalia docked at New York about one in the afternoon and everyone except the two Poor Clares immediately disembarked. Mother lgnatius returned for them around five o'clock and took them to the convent of the Grey Sisters on West Thirty-first Street for the night. The next day Magdalen and Constance were left entirely to themselves, and became alarmed when they received no word from anyone. Finally, they prevailed upon the superior of the convent to get someone to conduct them to Father Paulino, who had gone to St. Anthony's Friary on Sullivan Street. Father Paolino, who was having his own problems, told the sisters he had misgivings about the whole venture and had decided not to continue on to Belle Prairie but rather to await further instructions from Rome. They could continue on without him if they chose, but he recommended that they do as he was doing.

    For Magdalen and Constance it was not so simple to act on their own. They had been entrusted to Father Paolino's leadership, even though they had been commissioned to work with Mother Ignatius in establishing the Poor Clares of the Primitive Observance in Belle Prairie. They, too, had experienced certain misgivings during the weeks of association on the trip, but they were not ready to turn back. When Mother Ignatius called on the sisters on October fourteenth to arrange transportation for the final lap of the journey to Belle Prairie, they told her that certain obstacles had arisen which for the present compelled them to remain where they were until further orders arrived from Rome. 

    A few days later Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists, came to see Mother Ignatius and was introduced to the two Poor Clares. This was the beginning of a deep friendship, and Magdalen was to turn to him more than once for words of advice and consolation. The two sisters now found themselves in a most precarious position. They were foreigners in a strange land, where the customs were different and the language unfamiliar. They were penniless, staying with sisters they hardly knew.

The long wait

    Days passed with no news of any kind. Then one day one of the Franciscan Fathers told them bluntly that they were a burden to the Grey Sisters with whom they were staying. Always sensitive to the feelings of others, they prayed over the matter, and then went to the Mesdames of the Sacred Heart, hoping to receive hospitality from them. But their hopes were not realized. They were only offered a bowl of soup and did not have the heart to ask for more. They had only five cents to their name, an alms given them by a poor Irish woman on the street. Their last recourse was Father Paolino. He presented their case to Father James Titta of Gambitelli, guardian of St. Anthony's Friary, who arranged for them to stay with the Franciscan Sisters on Spring Street, who received them with great charity. At last, on November twenty-eighth the minister general's first letter reached Magdalen. He did not know what to advise them, since he was hoping to receive more details about the situation before making a decision. He counseled them to wait. When they kept an all-night vigil in St. Stephen's Church in preparation for the Feast of Christmas, they were still waiting. In a letter to her sister Matilda during the early spring of 1876, Magdalen wrote: "What a life, my God. The worst is this uncertainty. We do not know what to think. It does not seem possible to me that they have forgotten about us. It would be a great relief to know that they have even once given us a thought. But may the Lord's Will be done. This time we are not going to write to the minister general, because it is ten times that we have written to him without receiving an answer. You cannot imagine how we feel continually when, for six months, we find ourselves thrust upon charity in the houses of others."

The general's advice

    It was not until the middle of June that the long-awaited letter arrived. After stating his fatherly concern for the two stranded Poor Clares, the minister general finally got down to some concrete advice. "First. The Foundation should be made in the United States of America and nowhere else. Second. The religious should be true Poor Clares, without a school and with complete enclosure. (The foundation at Belle Prairie would have had a school for poor girls connected with it.) Third. The idea of the foundation in Minnesota with Sister Ignatius Hayes should be definitely abandoned. Fourth. Try to make the foundation, first at New York, next, if not accepted there, at Cincinnati, and then at Philadelphia."


    How the penniless women were to make these travels over a strange territory larger than all of Italy, the minister general did not explain. Neither did he have the foresight to send along a letter of introduction. After a day or two, Magdalen and Constance mustered their courage and faced up to the task. They called on Cardinal McCloskey of New York and asked, for the love of God, to be received into his city or diocese. He gave them a flat refusal because their form of life was against the spirit of the country. He further reproached them for remaining so long a time without doing anything. "like spoiled children, who have just received a nice scolding, we went to our good Father Hecker for a little consolation, and from him to Doctor McGlynn, who also comforted us and promised to write on our behalf to the Most Reverend John Baptist Purcell, D.D., Archbishop of Cincinnati." But he also refused to allow them to settle in his diocese.


    Finally, on August tenth, they were able to go to Philadelphia to call on Archbishop James F. Wood. Looking over their letter from the minister general, he remarked with a smile, "So you have kept me for the last." However, he immediately handed them the key of one of his own houses, situated at 3627 Walnut Street in West Philadelphia. Friends helped the nuns outfit the house. Mrs. F. A. Drexel was especially generous. They now believed their troubles were over, but all was not well. On October twenty-seventh, Magdalen and Constance received a summons from the archbishop. When the two Poor Clares arrived, they found him in consultation with his counselors. He said he was very sorry to inform them that they could no longer be retained in his diocese. He gave no other reason than the one previously offered by Cardinal McCloskey. He kindly added that they might stay in his house until they decided what to do next. After consulting with their new-found friends on Walnut Street, they decided to go to the Mesdames of the Sacred Heart at Eden Hal1 and await further instructions from Rome. In the meantime they received an unexpected offer from New Orleans.

Invitation to New Orleans

    A devout tertiary named Miss Hyllsted, who had attempted to join the Poor Clares in France, accidently heard about the homeless Poor Clares at Eden Hall and begged Archbishop Napoleon Perche of her native city of New Orleans to invite the sisters to his diocese. On December 10, 1876, Magdalen and Constance received their first actual invitation to any American diocese from the Archbishop of New Orleans. Rome approved the foundation on March 7, 1877, and Magdalen and Constance were on their way within two days. Once again they felt their wanderings were at an end. They arrived in New Orleans on March eleventh, received a warm welcome, and quickly settled down to the business of establishing themselves in the little cottage provided for them on Flood Street in the parish of St. Maurice. They now had two postulants, and funds were being collected to build a proper monastery. But they were not left to enjoy their new home for long.

Ordered to Cleveland

    On June seventeenth Father Gregory Yanknecht, Minister Provincial of the German Province of the Sacred Heart in St. Louis, visited them. On July twenty-fifth he called a second time, and informed them that they were to leave New Orleans and go to Cleveland. The Provincial gave no reason for his action, and Magdalen asked no questions. On August ninth, Magdalen and her three companions arrived in Cleveland and again set about turning a house into a convent. The location had the advantage of being near Franciscan Friars, but once again disappointment was to be the sisters' lot. Soon after her arrival in Cleveland, Father Gregory told Magdalen that German Colettine nuns, who had been exiled from their convent because of the Kulturkampf, would soon be joining the Cleveland Poor Clare community. Nothing more was said about the matter until the evening of December fourteenth, when Father Gregory called and told Magdalen that five nuns would arrive the next day, that the two communities were to become one, and that all the nuns were to conform to the customs and language of the German Colettines. The newcomers were welcomed the next day, but all was not peaceful. The two groups were different in too many ways, and the inevitable happened. When informed of Father Gregory's insistence on conformity to the practices of the German nuns, the minister general advised Magdalen to go to another religious community for the time being and investigate the possibilities of returning to New Orleans or starting afresh elsewhere. On February 27, 1878, Magdalen and Constance left Cleveland. The three novices who had received the habit there chose to follow them. The records of the Cleveland Colettines state that the two groups parted "in charity and friendship, exchanging many a little token of good will." In fact, during her lifetime Magdalen insisted on having a Sister Mary Coletta in the community to show that there were no hard feelings.

Fund raising

    Although Magdalen did not fully approve, she respected Constance's wish to divide the group in an attempt to raise funds. Constance with one novice and a postulant went to the West Coast in search of benefactors, while Magdalen and the other two novices went to New York for the same purpose. On her way to the West Coast, Constance stopped in Omaha where she met the Catholic philanthropist. John Creighton. She wrote back to Magdalen about the possibility of making a foundation in Omaha with Mr. Creighton's backing in such glowing terms that Magdalen contacted Bishop James O'Connor to inquire whether he would welcome the Poor Clares into his diocese.  A friend since their Philadelphia days, the bishop responded that he was not opposed to the foundation, but hastened to point out that he was not in a position to help them financially. Mother Magdalen with the two novices, Clare Bailey and Mary Francis Moran, arrived in Omaha on August 15, 1878.

    With the aid of Mr. Creighton a foundation was eventually made at Omaha, but there were many things still to be suffered before that foundation became permanent. During her return to Omaha from the West Coast, Constance was fleeced, as Magdalen had feared she would be, by an unscrupulous person to whom she had entrusted her collections. Before its completion, the new monastery was twice destroyed by tornadoes. To add to all this, money was never in abundance, and the sisters often went without what most people consider the necessities of life. But the sufferings of the previous three years were turned into joy when the document erecting the first Poor Clare monastery of the Primitive Observance in the United States was issued at Rome on November 15, 1881.

Return to New Orleans

    In 1885, Mother Mary Magdalen was able to accomplish the first "return" of the Poor Clares to cities where they had earlier attempted to establish monasteries. On June sixteenth, she and two other sisters left Omaha for New Orleans. One of her companions was Sister Mary Francis Moran, who had entered when Magdalen first came to New Orleans in 1877. Mrs. Tujague, Sister Mary Francis's devoted aunt, had never ceased working for the Poor Clares' return. Her labors were rewarded when her niece came back to New Orleans as superior of the community.

    The deepest grievance of all awaited Magdalen upon her return to Omaha, where, because of misunderstandings and circumstances too involved to explain in this article, she and Constance were placed under interdict and the Holy Eucharist removed from their chapel. While the charges were being investigated, the Bentivoglio sisters were taken to the Sisters of Mercy, and Sister Nativity was appointed temporarily to replace Magdalen as abbess. By September 1888 the matter was cleared up and Magdalen and Constance returned to their monastery. It was the feast of Our Lady of Mercy when they were exonerated, so they received permission to celebrate that feast in a special way each year. They were royally welcomed by all the sisters.


    Magdalen's last foundation was made at Evansville, Indiana in 1897. This monastery was also the scene of her death, which took place on August 18, 1905. When she expired, a miraculous light shone on her face, and her body was found incorrupt when exhumed in 1907 and again in 1932. The cause of her beatification was taken to Rome in 1931.

    The struggles and sacrifices of Mother Magdalen's daughters over the past hundred and twenty-five years have given existence to twenty-two Poor Clare monasteries following the Primitive Rule in the United States, two in Canada, one in Japan, two in Korea, one in Guatemala and two in South America. All these houses trace their origins back to the first American foundation at Omaha. A century ago, few believed that the contemplative vocation could survive in the materialistic atmosphere of America, but that belief did not prevent growth of the Second Order's membership from two in 1875 to about 350 in 1998. What the future will bring cannot be predicted, but if the past is any indication, the fact that today many are not convinced of the practicability of the Poor Clare vocation in America will not hinder growth of the Second Order in the third millennium.

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