April 20 is the feast of St. Agnes of Montepulciano, a Dominican abbess and foundress in medieval Tuscany. Seventy years after Agnes died St. Catherine of Siena made a pilgrimage to the shrine of this famous Dominican foundress. As St. Catherine bowed to kiss Agnes’ foot, the saint raised it up toward her so she would not have to bend so far. Catherine may not have been completely surprised, as miracles surrounded Agnes’ life.
This holy virgin was born in 1268 in a little village near Montepulciano, Italy to the affluent De Segni family. When she was born, mysterious flashing bright lights illuminated the house where she was born, announcing her birth.
At age six, Agnes was already pleading with her parents to let her enter the cloister. When they told her that she was too young, she begged them to move to nearby Montepulciano, so she could make regular visits to the monastery there. The family did not move, but they did allow Agnes to make visits to see the nuns there.
On one of these visits, Agnes 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 prostitution, a flock of crows swooped down and attacked the girl. Screaming and plunging, they managed to scratch and frighten her badly before the women drove them away. Upset by the incident, the women mutually agreed that the birds must have been devils, and that they resented the purity and chastity of Agnes, who would one day drive them from that hilltop. Agnes did, in fact, found a monastery there many years later.
As a child, Agnes often spent hours reciting the Our Father and Hail Mary on her knees in some private corner of a chamber. She was such a holy child that when she was nine years old her parents placed her in a Franciscan convent known as "Sisters of the Sack" , so called because their habits or scapulars were made of sackcloth. Agnes was a model of all virtues to this austere community.
At the age of fifteen, she entered the Dominican Order at Proceno, in the county of Orvieto, and was appointed abbess at the age of twenty by Pope Nicholas IV. On the day she was chosen abbess, small white crosses softly showered her and the congregation.
Agnes was deeply devoted to the Eucharist and to the Blessed Mother. In fact, it has been reported that the Blessed Mother visited her on numerous occasions. During one of these visits, she allowed Agnes to hold the Christ Child, but Agnes was hesitant to give him back. When she awoke from her trance, she was holding the small gold crucifix the infant Jesus was wearing. On another visit, Our Lady handed her three small stones and told her that she should use them to build a monastery. When Agnes told her that she had no intention of going anywhere, the Blessed Virgin told her to keep the stones--three, in honor of the Blessed Trinity--and one day she would need them.
Agnes had a strong prayer life and practiced severe penances. She slept on the ground, with a stone under her head, and for fifteen years fasted on bread and water. At the age of thirty, however, because of poor health, her spiritual director instructed her to eat other foods. While in the monastery, she earned a reputation for performing miracles: people suffering from mental and physical illnesses were cured solely by her presence. She was reported to have "multiplied loaves", creating many from a few on numerous occasions, evoking the Gospel miracle of the loaves and fishes.
The people of Montepulciano wanted so much for her to return to them that they destroyed a house of prostitution and in its place built a monastery for Agnes. In her hometown, she established in this house nuns of the order of St. Dominic. Agnes continued to be a great example of piety, humility, and charity to all for the remainder of her life. Through a long illness she showed great patience and grace, offering her sufferings up to God for the redemption of souls.
Agnes died at Montepulciano on April 20, 1317 at the age of forty-nine. Her body was removed to the Dominicans' church of Orvieto in 1435, where it remains. She was solemnly canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726.
Merciful God, you adorned Agnes of Montepulciano, your bride, with a marvelous fervor in prayer. By imitating her example, may we always hold fast to you in spirit and so come to enjoy the abundant fruits of holiness. St. Agnes never faltered in her deep devotion and love for You. Dear Father, may we also appreciate the spiritual things more than the things of this world and give to You our greatest devotion. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.