We are a small, ecumenical religious community who call ourselves the American Beguines.
The Community consists of married, widowed and single women who follow various Christian traditions. Some of us live together in what we call a modern day “beguinage”. Others live separately. Some of us are members of the Association of Contemplative Sisters.
The “Beguines”, in our incarnation of them at least, aren’t something you join; it’s something you do. Hence, our motto: “Ye shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). To this end, we each develop our own ministries, attend individually or jointly to the work which comes out of those, and get together either online or as a group when the need arises.
Activities: Our main outreach is directed toward the needs of women in the workplace. Some of our activities have included:
Regular weekly lunchtime Taize services for women working in the neighborhood and introducing Taize to local churches.
Providing food and transportation to cancer patients and their families.
Teaching English to Spanish-speaking healthcare workers.
Computer support for churches and small businesses in the Bay Area.
Teaching internet and computer skills.
How We Support Ourselves
We do not accept donations. The St. Catherine’s House beguinage receives financial support from:
1. The salary of one of our members who is an associate professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State University.
2. Chimney Sweep Books (est. 1975, owner Lillian Smith Kaiser).
We have extensive holdings in Religion and Theology. We also specialize in Women’s Studies and Celtic Studies. If you do not find your author or title in our online holdings, email us and we will be glad to check stock which is not yet in the database.
The store has migrated from brick and mortar to a completely online business. At one point in pre-computer days, we published Traditional Catholic Clip Art by Georgianna Brown and Judy Foreman. This is no longer in print and we have no plans to re-issue this. There are many better clipart books readily available (none that we know of, however, with that particular slant).
3. Sistertech is our computer and web consulting service.
Sistertech provides computer and web training for individual, non-profits, and small businesses. We design web sites and offer FileMaker Pro and Microsoft Access database solutions.
St. Catherine’s House
St. Catherine’s House is, for all intents and purposes, both a beguinage and a private library. There is no living room, no den, no sofa, coffee table. No place for guests to sit. There are desks, library tables, chairs, bookshelves, and books! Perhaps one day it will be open by appointment for reading, research and reflection. For now, it is an oasis for books.
From time to time we will post book reviews of books from the Beguinage and from Beguines elsewhere.
The Beguine Movement
“Beguine” is pronounced as in Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine“. But there the resemblance ends. Follow the links below to learn more about the historical beguines, beghards (the male counterparts) and the beguine movement. Links open up a new window. The sites listed below are not affiliated with the American Beguine Community. If you have a Beguine page or know of one, please contact us and we’ll add it to the list.
An excerpt from Catholic Encyclopedia: Beguines and Beghards.
As early as the commencement of the twelfth century there were women in the Netherlands who lived alone, and without taking vows devoted themselves to prayer and good works…..About the beginning of the thirteenth century some of them grouped their cabins together, and the community thus formed was the first Beguinage.
The Beguine could hardly be called a nun; she took no vows, could return to the world and wed if she would, and did not renounce her property. If she was without means she neither asked nor accepted alms, but supported herself by manual labour, or by teaching the children of burghers. During the time of her novitiate she lived with “the Grand Mistress ” of her cloister, but afterwards she had her own dwelling, and, if she could afford it, was attended by her own servants…. There was no mother-house, nor common rule, nor common general of the order; every community was complete in itself and fixed its own order of living…. There was a Beguinage at Mechlin as early as 1207, at Brussels in 1245, at Louvain in 1234, at Bruges in 1244…. [A] few convents of Beguines still exist in various parts of Belgium.
The Beguines by Elizabeth Knuth
An excerpt from The Beguines by Elizabeth Knuth
As mentioned earlier, the Beguines, like many of their contemporaries, were drawn by the ideal of the vita apostolica. Partly through choice and partly through coercion by the hierarchy, the Beguines did have a communal life. But the Beguines sought to live with a minimum of bureaucratic complications. The goals were simplicity and freedom. This applies as well to their understanding of evangelical poverty. Jacques of Vitry, an ardent supporter of the early “holy women,” charged that financial success had vitiated the monastic ideal (McDonnell 90). For the first hundred years or so, the Beguine movement drew many members from the wealthier classes; these women, for religious and political reasons, found voluntary poverty very attractive (McDonnell 96-98). However, the Beguines did not obligate their members to poverty (McDonnell 129-30). Manual labor was valued as the way to humility, apostolic poverty, and the ability to serve the needy (McDonnell 143-46). Thus criticisms of the Beguines as lazy and opportunistic beggars are inaccurate. The Beguines were “expected to live modestly, and an annual visitation by the grand mistress to each of the houses and convents determined that its inhabitants lived neither too luxuriously nor, interestingly, too simply. While reacting against the wealth and ostentation of secular society, the beguines did not see poverty as an end in itself” (Bowie 24).
Gender and the Medieval Beguines by Abby Stoner
There are among us women whom we have no idea what to call, ordinary women or nuns, because they live neither in the world nor out of it. – Franciscan Friar Gilbert of Tournai, 1274
The Beguines of northern Europe have been called the first women’s movement in Christian history. This group of religiously dedicated laywomen, who took no permanent vows, followed no prescribed rule, supported themselves by manual labor, interacted with the “world,” and remained celibate, flourished in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries–a time when the Church had defined two legitimate roles for pious women: cloistered nun and keeper at home. With their freedom of movement, economic independence and spiritual creativity, the Beguines carved out an unusually expansive–and controversial–niche for female religious expression.
Although the Beguine way of life has been of considerable interest to feminist scholars and women’s historians, few researchers have approached the subject with a focus on gender. Yet notions of “femaleness” and its boundaries–conceived by the devout women themselves and the male clerics with whom they came in contact–played a central role in creating, fostering, and restricting the religious development of the Beguines. Their position as “sisters between” the two sanctioned spheres of home and convent was both the source of their success and the cause of their downfall: they derived power and freedom from their ill-defined gender space, but the ambiguity of their place as women in the Church proved ultimately too unsettling for the male authorities to tolerate.
Katrien Vander Straeten’s Beguine Page
An excerpt from Katrien Straeten’s Beguine Page
In my home country, Belgium, you can still visit many beguinages (Dutch: “begijnhoven”). Many of these are tourist places now, or have received other secular functions, like the one in Leuven, which houses the university’s students and professors. But some still have “live-in” beguines. I remember that as a child my grandmother took me on a visit to “de begijntjes” of St. Amandsberg near Ghent. My grandfather tells me that at present there are still 6 beguines in Belgium. By the way, in Dutch beguines were and are always mentioned in that diminutive – “begijn-tjes” -; no ridicule is thereby intended (any more), and also Dutch scholarly works refer to them like that.
Learn about Taize
“Taize” (‘tey-zey’) is an ecumenical movement begun in France in 1940.
One of the activities of the American Beguines has been to introduce individuals, groups and churches to the simple, meditative music and liturgy of Taize.
Taize Home Page
The music of Taize – listen to audio clips of the music of Taize
Comments by philosopher Paul Ricoeur about Taize