Blessed Clare Gambacorta (born Victoria, and also known, confusingly, as Bl Theodora or Thora of Pisa) was born in 1362 – probably in Venice, where her family (the most important in Pisa) were in political exile. When the young Victoria was aged 7, altered circumstances in the politics of Pisa made it possible for the Gambacorta family to return to their native city, where her father, Peter, was duly instituted chief magistrate.
Victoria was a devout child, but, being attractive and of good family, was inevitably destined for a politically and socially advantageous marriage. Accepting Peter Gambacorta’s will in this regard, she became (aged 13) a loving and attentive wife. Shortly after Victoria’s marriage, St Catherine of Siena visited Peter in order to discuss politics with Peter, and Catherine met Victoria, offering her advice and encouragement in her endeavours to be both a good Christian and a good wife.
Tragically, Victoria’s husband succumbed to the plague after fewer than three years of life, and, though she had been perfectly happy as a bride, she was reluctant to marry a second time. Catherine wrote to Victoria (now aged 15, exhorting her to “Strip yourself of self. Love God with a free and loyal love”. Aware that Peter was negotiating another marriage contract on her behalf, Victoria fled the family home, finding refuge with the Poor Clares where she took the name Sister Clare.
In a move reminiscent of the kidnapping of St Thomas Aquinas by his family when he ran away to join the Dominicans, Clare’s brother removed from the convent and returned her to her home were she was kept locked in a dark room, isolated from friends and from the sacramental life of the Church, though, in the authentic spirit of St Francis and St Clare, she did succeed in smuggling jewels out to her friends so that they could be sold to raise money for the poor.
She may have been assisted in this by her sympathetic mother, who once smuggled her out to Mass when her father and brothers were away. Her much less sympathetic father invited a visiting Spanish bishop to talk her round to the family’s way of thinking, but the bishop in question had previously been confessor to St Bridget of Sweden, and, far from persuading Clare to abandon her plans for a religious vocation, he laid the ground for a conversion of heart on the part of the entire Gambacorta family.
Clare did not return to the Poor Clares, however, but, inspired by her earlier encounter with Catherine of Siena, entered a Dominican convent. The local Dominican convent was weak in observance, and, like so may others at the time, did not practise the common life in the way intended by it founder, and Clare, who favoured a stricter and more rigorous interpretation of Dominican life, arranged, with the assistance of her stepmother, for a new convent to be built for her.
The constitutions of the new convent (whose members also included Bl Mary Mancini), imposed a strict canonical cloister on the nuns, and all men (apart from the bishop and the Dominican Master General) were forbidden to enter its walls. By a bitter irony, Peter Gambacorta was killed by a mob (Pisan politics having once more turned against him) in the street outside the convent, together with one of his sons. Another son was wounded, and pleaded to be given sanctuary in the convent. Clare felt she had no choice but to refuse to open the door, and her brother was slain by the mob.
When Clare appeared to be dying, she asked for some food to be sent to her from the table of her father’s murderer, and the man’s wife duly obliged. Clare was healed of her illness, the murderer was himself killed, and his wife (now his widow) and daughters were afforded sanctuary in the convent (so that the bitter irony of earlier events found resolution in a certain kind of poetic bit entirely charitable justice). When death finally came to Clare in 1419, her burial-place was immediately associated with miracles, and a local cult grew up rapidly, as did the legend that, whenever a sister of the community is on the verge of death, Clare’s bones will rattle in her coffin. .