The Beguines pave the way for us to think courageously and creatively about the future of religious life

Cover of "The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women's Movement" by Laura Swan. (CNS photo / Courtesy Blue Ridge Books)

An exciting part of my work with Global Sisters Report is the surprises that pop up now and again. At a UISG meeting at Nemi, Italy, in February I met Sister Rosewitha, a Franciscan Sister from Germany, who told me that her congregation had started out in 1241 as a Beguine community in a small town of Dillingen, situated on the Danube River. Having just read Laura Swan’s book The Wisdom of the Beguines I was thrilled to meet someone whose religious community had experienced the evolution from Beguine life to that of a congregation of religious.

Not having time to get the whole story, Sister Rosewitha told me to contact one of her communities in Hankinson, North Dakota. This was an amazing coincidence because Hankinson is about three hours north of my Presentation congregation in South Dakota. I had known the sisters for years as the Hankinson Franciscans — and never dreamed they had such a fascinating history. The sisters were happy to share the story but most of it is still in German. Even so, they sent me an English copy of an abridged form written by Sr. Patricia Forrest in 1978 for the 50th anniversary of foundation in North Dakota. It was also fun to see photos of early sisters wearing head gear of women of 13th-century Belgium, similar to the Beguine pictured on the cover of Laura Swan’s book.

I have been inspired by the courage and ingenuity of the Beguines for many years but never found much written about them. These women are icons of response to the Spirit of God calling women to creative ways of living the Gospel in spite of resistant cultural and ecclesial structures and mindsets. Written history about the Beguines is so paltry that even the meaning of the name is unknown. There is agreement that the movement began in Belgium sometime in the mid 1100s and created much controversy. Who could accept that women might live a life of prayer, dedication to God and service to the poor outside canonically recognized Benedictine or Dominican cloisters and governed by men? Unthinkable!

Without the securities of cloistered life, the Beguines developed businesses to support themselves and their ministries to the poor, particularly women and children. Most lived alone, sometimes near a church, and others lived in small communities. The women did not make formal vows but remained celibate for life or as long as they chose and designed their own “way of life.” As this new life style developed and attracted members, Beguine villages were built, some of which are still standing today.

Living outside the norms for women of their time, the Beguines attracted the ire of many, including local church leaders. These authorities found all kinds of reasons to shut them down, including accusing them of prostitution, heresy, quietism — and then burning them at the stake. The women found ways to educate themselves in secular and religious studies enabling them to teach Scripture, translate the Bible into common languages, give lectures in spirituality, and serve as spiritual directors. How could women do such things, activities that belonged to the “ordained?” Their popularity among the laity was a problem for the clergy, and campaigns were often started to discredit them.

Even in business the Beguines were controversial. Local guilds saw them as competitors in lace making or other crafts. In spite of opposition, the movement grew throughout Europe and produced scholars, mystics and servants to the poor and disadvantaged.

It is known that some Beguine communities morphed into formal religious communities, but it was often an evolution over many years with huge gaps of information. A valid question is what value is there in thinking about these evolutions today? For me, history sheds light on where we have come from as religious and also makes connections with global movements and events in our current world. Ecclesiastes 9:1 tells us, “There is nothing new under the sun,” and yet there are variations on things done before that can influence and change our thinking. I was recently with some sisters from Africa and we discussed the Beguines’ business endeavors. They had never thought that they might re-think how they look at themselves and their potential as business women to sustain their ministries locally. Creating a global shared history and consciousness of how the charism of religious life in its various shapes and forms developed is another value that we at Global Sisters Report feel is essential to the future of religious life.

Sharing stories is often the way that sparks new ways of thinking about things we take for granted. For me, sharing part of the North Dakota Franciscans’ story does this. It gives insight into some of the history of how politics, social conditions and church policies influenced the evolution of a Beguine community into an apostolic religious community.

The Franciscans’ Beguine foremothers (no particular foundresses were identified) decided to become a community when a wealthy family donated a house to them near the local church. The donation included “a cabbage patch, a meadow and between 60 and 100 acres of land.” The only condition was that the women live holy lives and be financially self-supporting. The women followed their independent, non-canonical “way of life” for 64 years until 1303. The local bishop persuaded them to become a Third Order of St. Francis living under a Rule of 1289 approved by Pope Nicholas IV. Nothing is told about why they decided to follow the bishop’s wish. But, it was a very big change, requiring them to elect a superior by majority vote and “obey in all spiritual matters the Minister of the Friars Minor in Germany.” They no longer lived a “free community life,” though cloister was not required, and they could acquire property at will. A book titled Day In, Day Out: Women’s Lives in North Dakota claims they are the “oldest Franciscan sisterhood in the world.”

It appears the Dillingen Sisters’ new life went well, because no contrary history is recorded until 1438 when a night fire destroyed their home and the “Deed of Foundation” given at the time they became a Third Order Community. A new house was not built until 30 years later. Those intervening years are lost in silence. But with the new house came a new “Deed” issued by the bishop and allowing the sisters to welcome members to a maximum of 15. Recruitment was successful, and as wealthy young women joined the community and others gave contributions, the sisters expanded their house to accommodate 30.

Forty-one years later, in 1550 as the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were creating turmoil, especially conflicts about the Eucharist, the women petitioned and received permission for the Blessed Sacrament to be reserved for the first time in their chapel. The Reformation turmoil also impacted The Friars Minor, their spiritual guides, as the order was suppressed for leaning towards Lutheranism.

The threat of Lutheranism initiated reforms that regimented and re-structured women’s religious life for the next 400 years. The cherished Gospel spirit of freedom was replaced by oppressive measures. The women were required to live under strict, rigid rules: “We demand that the sisters refrain from letter writing, sending out greetings, and from other liberties which are against religious decorum and constitute the cause of many evils. . . . From now on, no sisters shall send off or receive a letter unless the superior or one of her councilors has read it. . . . At all times and without exception, the sisters should refrain from any kind of dancing and from singing of worldly songs . . . all banquets, especially those which last until night time, should be discontinued.”

The sisters were also required to “take a veil” for the first time since their beginning. Then, in 1629, as a consequence of the Council of Trent, strict enclosure was imposed. However, the superior objected, asking the bishop not to “burden their consciences with the strict enclosure which they could not observe anyhow, since their house had not been built for it.” Thus, upon inspection, he “mitigated the enclosure somewhat.” According to Sister Forrest’s account, the compulsory rules held until 1805 when the sisters were secularized by government decree. She notes too that from 1629 “owing to wars, poverty and other unstable conditions, they (the rules) were never strictly carried out.”

As the Thirty Years’ War in Europe raged on, the sisters’ newly regimented life never stabilized. Along with other refugees, 25 of them fled Dillingen and moved from one place to another to escape invasions from Sweden. For over 10 years they were scattered here and there as refugees and beggars until 1642. Those who remained alive re-grouped in Dillingen, where the bishop immediately required enclosure with severe penalties for any violation. However, the following year “the cloister was again shattered as by an earthquake,” and the sisters were again on the run, until “some measure of peace was restored and the sisters were able to earn their living.”

The restored enclosed community lasted for about 40 years until national political conditions brought about a new transformation. The government began to dismantle religious houses that in their minds added no value to the country. The bishop thus commanded the sisters to become teachers. After some resistance, they consented, but while they spent all day in the school, “all the trappings of the cloistered life” were kept. One new practice was introduced to soften the strict life. Rather than drinking only beer, the traditional national beverage, sisters could now drink coffee: “We allow each sister to drink it three or four times a week, and more often during the winter. . . .” This new life lasted for about 20 years, when it too was savagely taken from them.

In 1805 the government permanently disbanded the community: “They took everything: all our silverware and all or other household goods; all of our money, land, meadows, woods and building.” Those who wished to could go home, but most remained after a government concession allowed them to live in the convent surviving on meager pensions. The sisters were now back to their Beguine beginnings — lay women living a life of prayer, self-support and service in community.

Resilience is the character of women’s religious life in our church, whether canonical or lay non-canonical. The Beguines risked keeping their non-canonical life as lay women and survived opposition and uncountable challenges for around 900 years from the mid-1100s until 2013 when the last one died in Belgium. The Dillingen Franciscans carried on this Beguine spirit as their story did not end when forced to return to their origins. Instead, they rose again from the ashes, surviving 600 years of trauma, displacement and change, thriving into the present and found in many parts of the world today.

As I read the Franciscan Sisters’ story I was thinking about all our sisters today in Eastern Europe, Angola, Uganda, Syria, Egypt, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Burundi, Myanmar, Vietnam, China, Latin America and other countries around the world who can identify with those early women of faith who survived ecclesial and political oppression, war, displacement and even dissolution of their congregations. These stories too give the church confidence that the Spirit of God will always find a way to lead women to lives given over to God. This summer, there was a meeting in Rome of communities living new forms of religious life that have evolved since Vatican II. Here is a new source of stories of the resilience and creativity of God’s Spirit living in and among us.

History tells us that the thread of religious life goes much further back than the Beguines, but they, in a special way, pave the way for women to think courageously and creatively about what the future of religious life might look like, whether canonical or non-canonical.

(Thank you to the Hankinson Franciscan Sisters of Dillingen, Germany, for allowing me to use their materials for this blog.)

[Joyce Meyer, PBVM, is international liaison to women religious outside of the United States for Global Sisters Report.]