With a church and cloister that takes up an entire block, the “Convento delle Clarisse di Vallegloria” (also known as the “Order of the Poor Clares”) is an important presence in Spello. Saint Clare ran away from her family in Assisi to follow Saint Francis, and the Franciscan order that she founded in 1212 is now spread throughout the world, with Spello’s Vallegloria convent at the top of the hill serving as the “ancestral home” to the Order. Originally, the convent was located up on Mount Subasio a few miles away in the woods, but was moved inside the city walls of Spello for protection in 1320, during a bloody conflict between the cities of Spello, Perugia and Assisi. (The old “Vallegloria Vecchia” convent ruin is still standing, yet covered with vegetation and vines and slowly crumbling to the ground.) Living right across the street from the convent, I have often had a front row seat to some of the activities at the convent, and am a regular at Mass each Sunday in the small church, the “Chiesa di Santa Maria di Vallegloria.”
In the times that I have spent here in Spello, I have observed young novices taking their initial vows in the church—the ceremony where they lie flat on the floor, facedown and arms outstretched, for nearly an hour during the ceremony, and then rise to be dressed in their new habit of the Order. Last year, I was among the hundreds who witnessed the final vows of two sisters, who became “Brides of Christ,” received their wedding bands and crowns of thorns, and then retreated into the convent where they will live out their lives in prayer and contemplation. This is a “closed order,” and the nuns (“suore”) only leave the convent for medical reasons, so the few I see backing out the convent’s battered car to run errands are novices, and are still able to drive, speak to the public or work cleaning the outside of the convent before they have taken their final vows.
My first alert was the ringing of the church bells that usually call us to Mass on Sundays, but the bells kept ringing continuously for nearly 5 minutes. I didn’t think to ask why, until I saw neighbor Graziella in the piazza the next morning, and she told me that the Mother Superior of the Order had passed away the night before. The funeral Mass would be celebrated the following day, and then the procession would follow the hearse to the Spello cemetery for her entombment.
I came early to the funeral Mass, but was already unable to find a seat in the small, packed church. Every priest in Spello was dressed in embroidered vestments, and each served at the side of the Bishop of Foligno, who came to preside over the funeral. People just kept arriving, well into the funeral mass, and those standing in every open space of the church, far exceeding the seating available, made the procession to receive Holy Communion more difficult.
The Bishop blessed the Mother Superior’s casket with holy water, said the final benediction for all, and then the church emptied to wait outside as the casket was carried to the waiting hearse, along with the many floral arrangements. The funeral directors were the pallbearers, carrying the casket on their shoulders, with a small group of novice nuns following them. Until that moment, I had not thought about the inability of the cloistered sisters to follow the casket to the cemetery—they remained inside, having said their final good-byes before the Mass.
I suppose that I have had a small experience of the convent life cycle—watching novices taking their provisional vows and then rising to be dressed in their habits; novices taking their final vows to become “Brides of Christ” and disappear into the Vallegloria convent; and then, finally, the very small procession of those free to follow a sister to her final resting place in the cemetery as she leaves the convent forever. I am not Catholic, but this convent and its activities are central to everyday life here, and I am present as an observer to learn as much as I can about the religious culture of Spello.