The Women of the Order of Malta

Not far from the Hospital of Jerusalem there already existed before the foundation of the Order a women's infirmary; it was entrusted to nuns.

A Roman lady, Agnes or Alix, received the habit of the Order from the hands of the Blessed Gerard and became the abbess of that convent which was dedicated to Saint Magdalene. There under her direction, a life of prayer and charity unfolded all its zeal and resources, until the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187. Then the nuns were dispersed throughout the West and remained in small groups in the hospitals of the Knights, taking care of the sick women sheltered in them. But even before the exodus the houses of Europe had felt the need of leaving women in their hospitals; sisters were therefore present in the Commanderies. In 1180, we find nuns at Hampton, Standon, and Gosford in England. But toward 1186, Henry II, at Buckland, Somerset, created a home for the sisters of Saint John under the direction of Fina, the first abbess; she governed for 54 years. She gathered under her crosier all the nuns scattered in the religious houses of the Knights.

Almost at the same time, in 1188, Doña Sancha, wife of Don Alfonso, King of Aragon, in memory of the pious Knights fallen in defence of the Holy Land, raised a convent at Sigena, between Saragossa and Lerida, to receive without dowry the poor daughters of noble families. In theory they were to furnish proofs of nobility. But their families were so distinguished and well-known that these proofs were not required. The Queen deeded extensive tracts of land to them. At the assumption of power by the Infante Don Pedro, at the death of Don Alfonso, she withdrew to her convent with her daughter, Doña Dulce. They took the habit. The good Queen died in that convent in November l208, after having been at the head of the community for some years; her rule was characterized by great wisdom and holiness. She was buried in the convent church, and her stone tomb leas covered over with a very hard wood, painted quite skilfully in the ancient fashion. On it can be seen the portrait of the princess abbess in royal dress, with a crown on  her head and the cross of Saint John on her cloak. In memory of her the nuns carried a silver sceptre in the choir.

Since the reign of Leo XIII, proofs of nobility have no longer been required to enter this convent.

Many other houses of the Order were founded, especially in Genoa and Pisa, beginning with the first half of the thirteenth century. Some were devoted to the care of the sick, as at Beaulieu, of which we shall speak later. In general, however, after leaving the Holy Land, the sisters turned to contemplation, under the rule of Saint Augustine.

Their habit was composed of a gown of red silk and a black cloak with a white cross. After the fall of Rhodes, they dressed in mourning, wearing a black gown. They were not dependent on the local bishop; they came under the jurisdiction of the Prior of the province or the Grandmaster of the Hospital.

The Order of the Sisters of Saint John of Jerusalem has now been presented. Let us proceed to consider the three highest and most gracious figures of its martyrology.

The text of this page is quoted from: Ducaud-Bourget, Msgr. François: The Spiritual Heritage of The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, Vatican 1958

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