St. Agnes of Montepulciano (1268-1317)
Though St. Agnes of Montepulciano was not in any way a “child saint,” like her little Roman patroness, there is about her something of the same simplicity, which makes her name appropriate. Some of the best known legends about her concern her childhood.
Agnes was born in 1268, in a little village near Montepulciano, of the wealthy family of De Segni. Her birth was announced by great lights surrounding the house where she was born, and from her babyhood she was one specially marked out for dedication to God. By the time she was six years old she was already urging her parents to let her enter the convent. When they assured her that she was much too young to be admitted, she begged them to move to Montepulciano, where she could be near enough to the convent to make frequent visits. Since a state of armed truce existed between the cities near Montepulciano, her father was unwilling to move from his safe retreat, but he did allow the little girl to go occasionally to make visits in the convent of her choice.
On one of these visits an event occurred which all the chroniclers record as being prophetic. The little girl was traveling in Montepulciano with her mother and the women of the household, and, as they passed a hill on which stood a house of ill fame, a flock of crows swooped down on the little girl and attacked her with beak and claw. Screaming and plunging, they managed to scratch and frighten her badly before the women drove them away. Upset by the incident, but devoutly sure of themselves, the women said that the birds must have been devils, and that they resented the purity and goodness of little Agnes, who would one day drive them from that hilltop. Agnes did, in fact, build a convent there in after years.
When she was nine years old, Agnes insisted that the time had come to let her enter the convent. She was allowed to go to a group of Franciscans in Montepulciano, whose dress was the ultimate in primitive Franciscanism; they were known, from the cut of the garment, as “Sisters of the Sack.” The high born daughter of the Segni was not at all appalled at the rude simplicity with which they followed their Father Francis; she rejoiced in it. For five years she enjoyed the only complete peace she would ever have; she was appointed bursar at the age of fourteen, and she never again was without some responsibility to others.
She reached a high degree of contemplative prayer and was favored with many visions. One of the loveliest is the one for which her legend is best known: the occasion of a visit from the Blessed Virgin. Our Lady came with the Holy Infant in her arms, and allowed Agnes to hold Him and caress Him. Unwilling to let Him go, Agnes hung on when Our Lady reached to take Him back from her. When she awakened from the ecstasy, Our Lady and her Holy Child were gone, but Agnes was still clutching tightly the little gold cross He had worn on a chain about His neck. She kept it as a precious treasure. Another time, Our Lady gave her three small stones and told her that she should use them to build a convent some day. Agnes was not at the moment even thinking about going elsewhere, and said so, but Our Lady told her to keep the stones three, in honor of the Blessed Trinity and one day she would need them.
Some time after this, Agnes was called upon to leave Montepulciano to help in the foundation of a new convent of the Franciscans in Proceno. Here, to her distress, she was appointed abbess. Since she was only fifteen, a special dispensation had been obtained to allow her to take the office. On the day when she was consecrated abbess, great showers of tiny white crosses fluttered down on the chapel and the people in it. It seemed to show the favor of heaven on this somewhat extraordinary situation.
For twenty years, Agnes lived in Proceno, happy in her retreat and privileged to penetrate the secrets of God in her prayer. She was a careful superior, as well as a mystic; several times she worked miracles to increase the house food supply when it was low. Once she was called back to Montepulciano for a short stay, and she went willingly enough, though she hated leaving the peace of her cloister for the confusion of traveling. She had just settled down, on her return, with the hope that she had made her last move and could now stay where she was, when obedience again called her back to Montepulciano this time to build a new convent. A revelation had told her that she was to leave the Franciscans, among whom she had been very happy, and that she and the sisters of the house she would found should become Dominicans.
n 1306, Agnes returned to Montepulciano to put the Lord’s request into action. All she had for the building of the convent were the three little stones given her by the Blessed Virgin, and Agnes who had been bursar, and knew something about money realized that she was going to have to rely heavily on the support of heaven in her building project. After a long quarrel with the inhabitants of the hilltop she wanted for her foundation, the land was finally secured, and the Servite prior laid the first stone, leaving her to worry about where the rest of the stones were coming from. Agnes laid hand to the project and guided it safely to completion. The church and convent of Santa Maria Novella were ready for dedication in record time, and a growing collection of aspirants pleaded with her to admit them to the new convent.
he explained that the rule was to be not Franciscan, but Dominican. All the necessary arrangements were made, and the new community settled down. They had barely established the regular life when one of the walls of the new building collapsed. It was discovered that the builders had cheated, and that the whole convent was in danger of falling on top of them. Agnes met the new problem with poise. She had many friends in Montepulciano by this time, and they rallied round to rebuild the house.
hen the convent was once again completed, and had become, as hoped, a dynamo of prayer and penance, Agnes decided to go to Rome on pilgrimage. It is interesting to note that Second Order convents of the fourteenth century were so flexible in the matter of enclosure. She made the trip to Rome and visited the shrines of the martyrs. The pope was in Avignon, so she did not have the happiness of talking to him. But she returned to Montepulciano full of happiness for having seen the holy places of Rome.
At the age of forty nine, Agnes’ health began to fail rapidly. She was taken for treatment to the baths at Chianciano – accompanied, as it says in the rule, by “two or three sisters” but the baths did her no good. She did perform a miracle while there, restoring to life a child who had fallen into the baths and drowned. But she returned to Montepulciano to die on the twentieth of April, 1317.
She died in the night, and the children of the city wakened and cried out, “Holy Sister Agnes is dead!” She was buried in Montepulciano, and her tomb soon became a place of pilgrimage.
One of the most famous pilgrims to visit her tomb was St. Catherine of Siena, who went to venerate the saint and also, probably, to visit her niece, Eugenia, who was a nun in the convent there. As she bent over the body of St. Agnes to kiss the foot, she was amazed to see Agnes raise her foot so that she did not have to stoop so far. Agnes of Montepulciano was canonized in 1796.
(Source : Dorcy, Marie Jean. St. Dominic’s Family. Tan Books and Publishers, 1983)