Elizabeth Fry vs. Clare of Assisi

Hey, today marks the very last matchup of the Saintly Sixteen! Elizabeth Fry faces Clare of Assisi in an attempt to join Herman of Alaska, Harriet Tubman, Hildegard of Bingen, Brother Lawrence, Margaret of Castello, Joanna the Myrrhbearer, and Joseph in the Elate Eight.

As hinted at above, on Friday Hildegard of Bingen took down Elizabeth the New Martyr 57% to 43%. This means that of the quartet of Elizabeths in the 2020 bracket only Elizabeth Fry remains. Will a single Elizabeth continue on in this year's tournament? Or will the four be barred from further Lenten glory? That's the decision you'll make today, friends. Now go vote -- it's the last full week of Lent Madness!

 Elizabeth Fry

“Oh Lord, may I be directed what to do and what to leave undone.”

Imagine an industrious nineteenth-century woman of conviction who, after giving birth to eleven children, had her eyes opened to the brutal and horrifying conditions of women in her society. Elizabeth Fry was so compelled to act and so efficacious that she prayed for guidance about what to leave undone. Elizabeth, called Betsy, was a devout Quaker and saw the inner light of God in every person no matter their race, social class, or the crimes they’d committed. She had the wisdom to understand the causes of social problems and the courage to change them, working to reform the status of women and for the cause of abolition. She is best known as a prison reformer.

“Punishment is not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the criminal.”

The prison officials at Newgate warned her that visiting inmates was dangerous, but she was not thwarted. In the prisons, she saw inmates starving if they had no family to pay for their meals, children imprisoned with their mothers and clinging to them as the women were taken away to be hanged.  Her goal was "to provide for the clothing, instruction, and employment of the women; to introduce them to a knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, and to form in them, as much as possible, those habits of sobriety, order, and industry, which may render them docile and peaceable while in prison, and respectable when they leave it.”

In the prison, she taught women hygiene and skills they could use to earn an income. She advocated that women should be housed apart from men, supervised by female guards, and separated by the severity of the crime. She comforted them and read to them from the Bible.

Prison officials were astounded by her results. The most dangerous and undisciplined inmates were transformed into model citizens of the jail, truly reformed and ready to live an honest life upon their release.

Like Jesus, Elizabeth Fry knew the transforming power of love shown to someone who thinks herself unlovable. She spoke up for women who’d been sentenced to death, arguing for the sentence to be lessened. When her pleas fell on deaf ears, she went with the condemned women to comfort them in the moments before execution.

She went from her work in the squalid jails to the palace, where she several times was granted an audience with Queen Victoria, who greatly admired her and financially supported her cause. For her tireless work and groundbreaking reforms, she was granted a key to Newgate Prison.

Fry’s accomplishments are so widely recognized in England that for fifteen years (2001-2016) her image was on the £5 note. On it, she was depicted reading to the inmates and the design featured the motif of the key she was awarded. In her memory, the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies works on behalf of incarcerated women and organizes National Elizabeth Fry Week every May.

Like those who continue to honor her, may we all be so convicted, wise, and efficacious as to need to ask God what good works we ought to leave undone.

-- Amber Belldene

Clare of Assisi

St. Clare of Assisi is the first female follower of St. Francis of Assisi and the first woman to write a Rule of Life for a monastic order, what she founded as the Order of Poor Ladies and is known today as the Poor Clares.

She also is a saint for our time, living the #QuarantineLife cloistered with her sisters long before it was mandated for many people all over the world amid the current coronavirus pandemic.

Her austerity, fasting three days a week and praying through many sleepless nights, meant she often was sick and confined to her bed.

That didn’t keep Clare from participating in worship, however.

One Christmas, unable to attend Matins in the chapel with her sisters, Clare sighed, “Lord God, look, I have been left here alone with you.” Immediately, she was able to hear the music and liturgy as if she were in the chapel herself. She even viewed the baby Jesus lying in the manger, as the Gospel of Luke describes, which is why she now is recognized as the patron saint of television.

Like many of us who are staying home to prevent catching or spreading the coronavirus, Clare turned to a pet for comfort during those times she was alone — and once for a towel that was just out of her reach.

When a little cat in the monastery attempted to drag the towel to her, Clare chastised it for dragging it on the ground. The cat, as if it understood, responded by rolling up the towel and carrying it to her neatly.

Clare took social distancing seriously.

During the war of Assisi, members of Emperor Frederick II’s army scaled the wall of the monastery of San Damiano. Clare comforted her sisters: “Do not be afraid, because they will not be able to hurt us.”  Then she threw herself on the ground in front of a monstrance holding the consecrated bread for the Eucharist, praying, “Lord, look upon these servants of yours because I cannot protect them.” The troops suddenly fled, and the saint now is depicted holding a monstrance.

Clare also is credited with a number of miraculous healings — once healing five sisters at once by making the sign of the cross over them while delivering their medicine.

And Clare wrote a handful of letters to Blessed Agnes of Prague, through which she still speaks to us. They include the quote she perhaps is best known for: “Love Him totally who gave Himself totally for your love.”

 -- Emily McFarlan Miller

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Elizabeth Fry: Portrait of Elizabeth Fry by Joseph Simpson, 1915. Public domain
Clare of Assisi: Detail depicting Saint Clare from a fresco (c. 1320) by Simone Martini in the Lower basilica of San Francesco, Assisi. Public domain.


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89 comments on “Elizabeth Fry vs. Clare of Assisi”

  1. We should say physical distancing rather than social distancing. We need social connections now more than ever. P.S. I went with Elizabeth.

    1. I was delighted to find an Elizabeth Fry 5 pound note among my leftover English money from a choir tour to Chichester. But that didn't influence my vote, since I had already voted for her.

  2. It was not an easy decision. I have been aware of Clare and her activities for several years, but Elizabeth was a woman of action. That carried the day on my vote for Elizabeth.

    1. Same. I voted for both of these ladies in the first round, so this was a tough one. I love Francis, so I assumed I would vote for Clare. However, the repeated story of Elizabeth's hard work for others (while mothering ELEVEN children) won me over.

    2. Yes, I also voted for Elizabeth Fry because she was a woman of action who lived the gospel. So did Elizabeth the New Martyr and I believe we made a mistake not putting her into the Elite Eight.

  3. I voted against my own bracket once again for Elizabeth Fry. Reading the story of her church viaits with women reminded me of many of the lay missioners I work with. Prison visitation is a big part of the work of many of our women missioners. They frequently serve both women and men in prison in places like Brazil and Bolivia. I have seen a video of one young woman in her twenties in a prison yard leading a church service with dozens of men surrounding her. I admire their courage and compassion.

  4. Elizabeth's prison ministry is a timely reminder for us invthese days of physical distancing. The incarcerated are on my heart and I pray for them and those who minister to them. This I had to bote for Elizabeth.

  5. I worked at a prison for a short period of time and have great admiration for anyone who is willing to take on the challenges of trying to change conditions for the better. Yes, even in this modern age. More resources and help for the women in prison. I had to vote for Elizabeth.

  6. Clare--the patron saint of television! I went with the Quaker lady, a Friend to all.

  7. Strong matchup, however we chose Elizabeth. We want to show this sort of love.
    “ Like Jesus, Elizabeth Fry knew the transforming power of love shown to someone who thinks herself unlovable. ”

  8. I was a prison(men) Librarian for many years and know the power
    of honor each person's humanity. Thank you Elizabeth.

  9. Although my middle name is Clare, and I've read a lot about her and admire her, I had to go with Elizabeth Fry.

    1. Emily, I voted for your name-sake nonetheless. The frustrating thing about Lent Madness is who they pit against each other. Since I have been living in front of the television set during this isolating time, I voted for the patron of television.

  10. The decision today is even tougher than usual. Both are so worthy. But my Quaker ancestors are pulling me toward the Quaker lady who even comforted prisoners as they were led to their deaths. Her prayer also becomes mine, as I feel overwhelmed at times by all there is to do, far more than I am able to do, to ask God for guidance in what to do and what to leave undone. Elizabeth Fry!

  11. Hard one today, my thoughts are for the last Elizabeth to go on, but, not to leave Clare out to hang so I voted for her! I originally voted for both of these remarkable woman and prayed on who vote for, and to send at least Clare out with a decent vote to meet her ends!

  12. I went with Elizabeth today, because her actions are tangible and verifiable.
    If anyone in the DC, Maryland, Virginia region is interested in working towards compassionate justice reform in our own time, sending letters of encouragement to prisoners, or writing letters to lawmakers to abolish solitary confinement, the Interfaith Action for Human Rights is a good place to start. https://www.interfaithactionhr.org/

  13. I have always been a fan of Clare, however, chastising her cat when it had deigned to assist her troubled me. I’m going with Elizabeth, who willing moved among those ‘quarantined’ by society.

    1. Ooh I hadn't perceived Clare's response as chastisement [though was puzzled by it]; was going to vote for Elizabeth due to her fighting for women, but as the "staff" to [now ONLY] 10 cats, learning Clare had a cat made it a tough call. But principles over crazy cat ladies won so went with Elizabeth

  14. I found this a struggle I recently developed a devotion to St Clare...but I've done some reading on the women reformers of the early 19th century and just had to go with Elizabeth....it was an exceptional person who could do such work.....

  15. In the previous round, I voted for Clare because of television in the time of being confined to home. It was a somewhat selfish motive. But with the novel virus starting to invade the prison systems, I was moved to vote for Elizabeth Fry.

  16. I was sure Clare would take this easily, but the write up for Elizabeth Fry is too compelling and too relevant to ignore. Imprisonment is now much less common in Britain than in the US; we need LOTS of Elizabeth Frys here if there is hope of fixing our seriously unjust system!

    1. I thought Clare would be in the final round, but even I didn’t vote for her. I was again so taken with Elizabeth’s focus and drive, something I truly lack in my later years.

      1. Myself as well, Susan. My bracket had her going to the final. I voted for Elizabeth after reading her bio and then was stunned to discover Elizabeth was leading by a wide margin. It's even wider now. Understandable when you read the bios, but I never would have predicted this upset.

  17. As a benched volunteer for Kairos Prison Ministries, my heart and my vote are with Elizabeth and her work. Looking forward to resuming our visits to the local women’s prison.

  18. I love St. Clare, I admire Elizabeth Fry. What to do? What to do? Patrice, your comment that Elizabeth Fry's actions were tangible and verifiable tipped the scales for me and I voted for Elizabeth. I like her prayer: "O Lord, may I be directed what to do and what to leave undone." - a prayer in we all can join.

  19. In normal times I am privileged to do jail ministry with women. They have not had any programs or volunteer gatherings in over 3 weeks to keep the virus out. It's very sad.

    I gotta vote for Elizabeth!

  20. Gotta vote for another "Betsy!" Although I shivered my way through a stay at a convent in Assisi in 1967 -- embarrassed to ask the sisters for another blanket!

  21. It's not a real choice for me today: I voted for Elizabeth Fry. I am so impressed by her dedication to prison reform and women's uplift. Bold move on Emily's part to play the coronavirus card; almost as good as #AndYetShePersisted. If we're going to view the saints this year through the lens of coronavirus, then it seems to me we must confront our (western) Victorian legacy. As Americans reap the whirlwind of forty years of anti-government rhetoric, and suddenly discover that they do want and need effective government and leadership, we all have an opportunity to reassess the inheritance the Victorian era left us. Elizabeth Fry is the quintessence of the earnest, sincere Victorian reformer: her work involves the amelioration of institutions. She works at the bleeding edge of social norms and government services. She reminds me very much of the nuns and nurses at Nonnatus House in "Call the Midwife." While the British health service was a post-war phenomenon, its roots lay in the Victorian era. The Victorian era brought us electric lighting, indoor plumbing, the postal service, and public sanitation. Let us include, too, Karl Marx as a good Victorian. His work documenting poverty using the Blue Books in the British museum laid the foundation for a system of thought that prioritized an understanding of the material conditions of people's lived lives as a basis for seeking radical change in and renewal of society. How can we possibly deny that we need radical change today? Let us also remember that the concept of "privacy" is a central good bequeathed to us by the Victorians. Victorian social reform and Christian conviction unite in Mrs. Fry. I am troubled by Clare's cryptoanorexia; starving oneself into ill health does not seem to advance the glory of God. But I am not troubled by good works that advance the dignity and empowerment of one's fellow human beings.

    1. “You’re quite a powerful speaker, [ma'am],” .... “I wonder you don’t go into Parliament.”

      Hear hear! St. Celia - timely and well said!

    2. Very interesting, St. C; being described as Victorian is usually not a compliment, so I thank you for the reminder of what progressives they were at the time.

  22. In honor of my online prayer friend, Francesca, I vote for Betsy. Francesca lived near a prison for quite some time, and she held Bible study and worship time with women at a Max unit at the prison. So, even though Francesca would be likely to vote for Clare today, (she is a third order Franciscan) I vote for Elizabeth.

  23. I voted for Clare (again) today, but both are worthy choices. Looks like my choice is going to get trounced, but I can't be too upset since Elizabeth is also a great choice.

  24. I just finished the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Our criminal justice system in the US has serious issues. So I voted for Elizabeth. I was surprised to see her so far ahead because I had assumed Clare would take this round.
    I hope you all stay home when you are not required to be at work and that we will all be here for the Golden Halo and beyond.

  25. Lots of Quakers in my family, so I had to go with Elizabeth Fry. No offense to Clare -- these later rounds almost always find me voting against somebody I voted for the first time.