Marie d’OIGNIES (1177-1213)

Marie d’Oignies

Marie was born in Nivelles (Belgium) in 1177 by wealthy parents, who became later disappointed for her indifference towards rich clothes and ornaments. Although she well knows the Cistercian world, she does not want to become a monastic nun. At 14, her parents forced her to marry Jean, also from a wealthy family of Nivelles. Immediately after marriage, finally out of parental control, she initiates intense ascetic practices of fasting, prayer and charity. After a few months from the marriage, Jean lives a conversion that brings him closer to God. Together they decide for an “apostolic life” that also involved a conjugal relationship as brother and sister, without sexual relations. Then, they leave their home in Nivelles and join an informal community of apostolic life not far away, in Willambroux, near a leper colony. They will remain there for 12 (or maybe 15) years. Jean’s brother, Guido, is chaplain of the local church and spiritual director of this community.
Together with the other members of the community, Marie and Jean nurture and care for lepers, but also for others ill or poor, instruct children, offer religious education and pray together.
Mary becomes a “living saint”; many people talk about her and want to see her. She has a reputation for effective prayers, she can read in people’s souls, recognizing also the state of salvation or sin and invites people to repent. Too disturbed by these crowds coming from the city and surroundings, in 1207 she moved to Oignies near the priory of St Nicolas, living as a recluse in a cell next to the choir of the church. It was a life of fasts and prayers, but also offering spiritual advices. In 1208, she meets Jacques de Vitry, a canon coming from Paris to meet her and eventually become her disciple. Marie urges him to return to Paris, where he is ordained in 1210, and then to come back to Oignies to serve the lepers and the needy. Mary becomes his “magistra”, inaugurating a deep spiritual friendship, in which they were mutual guides to each other. Marie is also remembered for her preaching, a practice adopted by the beguines, at least before the prohibition of Gregory IX in 1228, and for her gift of prophecy. She is known for her incredible fasts, the last of which lasts for 53 days. At her death at the age of 36 she weighed 33kg. However, contrary to what is sometimes read, she did not receive the stigmata. She is so honored that she is considered the “first beguine”, given that around her the first historically established beguinal community was formed. She died on 23 June 1213, the day when she is commemorated as a Blessed in the Roman Martyrology. Each year, on the first Sunday after June 23, a procession with the urn of her relics leaves from the church of Notre Dame de Oignies
After her death there was much talk about her: it seems that even Francis of Assisi was one of his admirers and that pope Gregory IX (1227-1241), “stopped cursing only by wearing the finger of Maria d’Oignies around his neck“, as curiously reported by Chiara Frugoni in Vita di un uomo: Francesco d’Assisi (Life of a man: Francis of Assisi), Einaudi, p.44.