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Catholic Heroes… St. Agnes Of Bohemia

February 20, 2018 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

In the thirteenth century, many alliances were solidified by a marriage between members of royalty from other nations. There were also quite a few royal persons who were known for their holiness by following Christianity, including St. Elizabeth of Hungary and St. Ludmila and St. Wenceslaus of Czechoslovakia. Related to all of these saints, Princess Agnes also loved our Lord. Even though she became a pawn in the betrothal scheming, she refused all suitors and spurned the various marriages others were planning for her.
Agnes, the daughter of Ottokar, king of Bohemia, and Constance of Hungary, was born on June 20, 1211. Her father is frequently called the father of the Czech Republic as he led the rise of that nation. As such, he played a significant role in the Holy Roman Empire. Because of this, his offspring were sought for marriage to secure influence in the political sphere.
Agnes’ education began in her early years at the monastery in Treinitz run by the Cistercians. The education she received was in keeping with her state in life as a member of royalty.
When she was eight years old her father had promised her in marriage to the son — who was ten years old — of the German Emperor Frederick II. His son later became King Henry VII, duke of Swabia. To prepare for this marriage, Agnes was sent to the Austrian Babenberg court to learn the manners, customs, and culture of her betrothed’s land.
Providentially for Agnes, Duke Leopold of Babenberg persuaded the emperor to have his daughter, Margaret, marry the emperor’s son instead of Agnes. This left Agnes free to return home. However, in 1226, Ottokar, upset with the break in promise, went to war with Babenberg.
When Agnes arrived back in Bohemia, she learned her father had betrothed her to the English King Henry. However, during this time, the Emperor Frederick II lost his wife. This led him to seek the hand of Agnes, who had been promised to his son, and her father readily agreed to the proposal.
Agnes, having developed a life of prayer and meditation had committed her life to God so when the time came to solemnize the marriage she refused to go through with it. She would not give up the consecration she had made to God in the monastery.
Frederick became enraged upon learning she had rejected marriage with him. He soon learned of the reason for his failure — that she had left the altar where she would have married him to be the spouse of Christ. When his anger abated, he remarked, “If she had left me for a mortal man, I would have taken vengeance with the sword, but I cannot take offense because in preference to me she has chosen the King of Heaven.”
Seeking a religious life, Agnes appealed to Pope Gregory IX who persuaded Frederick to abandon the marriage proposal. Thus Agnes began her true vocation of serving God.
As a contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) and his protégé St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), Agnes adopted their spirituality. She first learned of the Franciscans when her brother invited the Franciscan friars of Bohemia to his home.
Through them, she learned about the Order of Poor Clares. Although she never met either Francis or Clare, they lived during her lifetime and she communicated frequently with Clare. She loved their prayer life and learned as much as she could about their monasteries. Following their example, Agnes began her new life by working in hospitals and serving the poor.
As more women joined her they began following the lifestyle of the Franciscans. Soon she sent five nuns to Prague to open a new house of the Poor Clares — known as the Order of Poor Ladies at the time. A new convent was founded north of the Alps, built on land donated to Agnes by King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia, her brother. She also founded the Hospital of St. Francis in 1233.
She also built a monastery for the Poor Clares and a friary for the Franciscan friars which were attached to the hospital. This campus of the hospital and religious houses was among the first Gothic buildings in Prague.
In 1235 Agnes transferred the property of the Teutonic Knights in Bohemia to the hospital. This order was originally founded as a military order to build hospitals and support Christians during the time of the Crusades.
To support the work in the hospital, Agnes also founded the Hospital Brotherhood which later became the Order of the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star following the rules of St. Augustine. In 1238, she gave the hospital to these knights.
As the complex grew and the membership increased, Agnes corresponded frequently with St. Clare to develop the rules of life. She also communicated with Popes Gregory IX, Innocent IV, and Urban IV.
She also continued to serve as a member of the royal family working passionately to bring peace and harmony to their land. Eventually she was instrumental in bringing King Wenceslaus and his son Premysl, Margrave of Moravia, together after years of animosity. Again, she used her influence to reconcile a nephew of Ottokar II and Rudolf of Hapsburg.
Time went on and Agnes had become mother superior of the new order and under her guidance it was thriving. The work she had begun became well known not only in Bohemia but also throughout Europe. While she held that office, she continued to do the lowliest tasks such as cooking and mending the clothes of the lepers and paupers.
Agnes remained in the convent for the rest of her life, living a life of poverty and service followed by an extended period of illness. She finally died on March 2, 1282.
Sadly, during the 15th-century Hussite wars — a heretical sect — the order was forced to leave its premises. In their absence, the Dominicans ran the monastery until the sisters returned toward the end of the 15th century.
They remained in the Convent of St. Agnes, as it later became known, until 1782 when Emperor Josef II closed it down. One hundred years later it was nearly demolished in the slum clearances but survived until the 20th century when it was declared a national monument. In 1963 it became the National Gallery — sadly with little or no recognition of its founder, the royal princess who gave up the powers of the temporal world to serve the heavenly kingdom.
Pope Pius IX beatified Agnes in 1874 and she was finally canonized by Pope St. John Paul II on November 12, 1989 — five days before the fall of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia on November 17, 1989.
In 2011, the 800th anniversary of her birth, she was honored with great celebrations as the Saint of the Overthrow of Communism. The year was dedicated to her by the Czech Catholics.
Her feast day is March 2.
Dear St. Agnes, intercede for us, obtain for us we pray, the grace to prefer the treasures of the next world over the passing pleasures of this world. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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