Servant of God Claire de Castelbajac: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Claire de Castelbajac (1953–1975) was a kind, joyful, delightful young woman who worked in art restoration in Italy. Claire de Castelbajac was an angst-filled college student who was enmeshed in toxic friendships and barely even believed in God. Claire de Castelbajac died at only twenty-one. And someday soon she might be a Saint.

In France, Claire lived an idyllic life in the countryside. She raised rabbits, canaries, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters—any animal she could get her hands on. She also loved cooking, drawing, riding a bike, and swimming. She played piano and later the organ. At seven, Claire learned braille so she could write to her blind half-sister Anne, fifteen years her senior.

Homeschooled until she was nine, Claire struggled when she first began attending a brick-and-mortar school. She was bullied at first but eventually found her way, often finding herself in trouble at school for innocent mischief. Despite her poor health (which included asthma, sciatica, and skin allergies) Claire was sent to boarding school at age ten, an experience she loved, though she missed her parents and her pets.

Claire had always been prone to temper tantrums, but she earnestly loved the Lord from a young age and desperately wanted to be holy, confiding in her mother (when she was only six) that she wanted to be a saint. When preparing for her first confession, she exclaimed, “Big people are lucky! They know all the sins so they don’t do them anymore because they know they’re sins. If I knew all the sins, then I wouldn’t do them anymore because I wouldn’t want to hurt Jesus.” This heartfelt desire was clear to those who knew her, but the pursuit of holiness wasn’t always easy. At thirteen, Claire had a classmate she simply couldn’t stand; she couldn’t change how she felt, but she fought tooth and nail not to hate the girl.

Claire’s education was frequently interrupted by ill health—hers and her mother’s. After months in the hospital, Claire underwent a spinal surgery that was so successful, she was able to pass her high school graduation exam only three weeks after leaving the hospital. Finally, she was ready to pursue her great love: art.

Claire had always had a love of art, certainly encouraged by her mother. She was captivated by the work of Monet, saying, “He offers us a heavenly island in the midst of our vulgar mud.” But despite (or perhaps because of) her love of Impressionism, she struggled with certain styles in her youth. “Old classical paintings annoy me,” she said after some time at the Louvre.

She would have to learn to love these paintings as well. Claire had decided to work in art restoration, a field that required artistic skill as well as impressive intellect. After high school, she went to Toulouse for a year-long course in art history, though she left her program early in order to prepare more intensely for her restoration course in Rome. The following year, Claire was accepted into the Central Restoration Institute (Istituto Centrale per il Restauro), where she spent three years studying. One might expect her course load to have focused exclusively on art history and techniques, but Claire was required to take classes in physics, chemistry, and microbiology as well. In her first year, she worked on fresco conservation, gilding, and relining paintings with a new, more stable canvas behind the original. She also learned the regatino paint restoration method, which involves a repair intended to fool the eye from far away. Upon closer inspection, a viewer can tell which parts of the work are original and which are the work of restorers. Within months, Claire was at work on a statue of Christ from the twelfth or thirteenth century. She was excited by the opportunity and by the attendant publicity, but most of all by the opportunity to be in deep prayer as she worked to restore the image of Christ.

For all that her work fascinated her, Claire was distressed by the atmosphere that surrounded her. She was only nineteen and was living alone in Rome. The other artists among whom she was learning were far less inclined to purity and piety than young Claire and she was scandalized by the lives they led and their attempt to draw her in, even if just by flirtation. Claire was aware of her own weakness, of how easy it would be to succumb to the temptation offered her by the many charming young men who found her so alluring. Like many young girls out in the world for the first time, Claire was overwhelmed by the attention of the boys she met, writing, “What annoys me is my success—completely unintentional, believe me—with boys. One is totally in love with me. And then, there is a Lebanese boy who is full of consideration . . . and, I might add, two Italians, who are especially complimentary and faithful dogs. At the end of nine days, it’s a lot.” Initially, she spoke lightly of her success with the opposite sex, but gradually she found herself more and more tempted by the lives her friends were living. “So sometimes,” she wrote, “when I see the people around me, I think to myself that it wouldn’t be so bad to be like them . . . . Then I pray, I pray, to have the courage, I could even say sometimes the heroism, to resist, to not have any ‘boyfriend’ before marriage” (referring not to a chaste courtship but to the living arrangements of most of her peers). Eventually, the struggle to remain true to her convictions began to wear on her and she wrote with great discouragement, “In the beginning, people used to ask me why I was always cheerful. Now they don’t say that anymore and I need to be happy or I’ll miss out on the chance to witness. It’s a bit of a martyrdom.”

Claire was able to resist the threats to her chastity, but through the influence of her closest friends gradually slid away from her ideal of hard work. She spent more and more time laughing with friends and staying out till all hours. Soon this young woman who had always been so intentional was living a shallow, superficial life, with little attention to the spiritual life that had always sustained her. Her work suffered so severely that she was nearly dismissed from her program; in order to stay, she was required to retake two exams. But Claire was so enamored of her newfound freedom and of her rather irresponsible friends that even the grave correction of her professors did not faze her; her uncle (who lived in Rome) spoke to her severely, saying, “I am sorry for your parents, especially your father, who is old, that you are wasting your life and that their efforts for you are in vain.” Claire snapped back, “In the meantime, I’m having a good time!” and flounced out of the room. How different from the young woman who was so eager to be joyful so that she could witness to her friends! Now Claire was frivolous, selfish, and even petulant.

The disdainful attitude that her friends Laure and Élisabeth had toward religion began to affect Claire as well. The girl who had longed to be a Saint mentioned that Laure thought priests were “bells and noodles” and commented that she agreed a bit. She had fallen away from the practice of daily Mass because she was so busy. Eventually, she began to wonder if she really ought to go on Sunday merely out of obligation; she had so little religious feeling that she felt attending was false in some way. Other times she debated going to Mass because she felt that everybody in attendance was a hypocrite, a secret bigot whom Claire was desperate not to resemble. She wondered why she ought to continue going through the motions, even admitting that she did not truly believe in the presence of God. Still, something caused Claire to maintain her practice of the faith, continuing to attend Mass on Sundays despite her grave doubts.

Though she must have known how it would worry her parents, Claire was honest in her letters home, refusing to conceal even what might have felt shameful. Though she did not realize it at first, the prayers of those who loved her began to have an effect. The tumult of Claire’s life began to weigh on her. Her friendships began to feel strained. Claire had loved her friends with a fierce passion and the unraveling of those relationships was just as passionate. When her mother cautioned her against such extreme feelings about her friends, Claire tore up the letter in a fury. That evening, though, she glued it back together, taking her mother’s words to heart and beginning to examine the ways in which her life had spiraled.

Claire’s relationship with her two best friends became more and more toxic, finally beginning to fall apart. They grew increasingly distant, which (though painful) was clearly for the best; when a final blow-up ended the friendship in May 1974, Claire was devastated but also relieved. For some time, she had felt uncomfortable in these relationships and now she was able to step away, to recognize how much she had lost her true self, and to return not only to herself but also to the Lord.

While her personal life was in shambles, Claire’s professional work was beginning to take off. She was restoring an eighteenth-century painting of the Holy Family and later a gilded wooden statue of the Blessed Mother that was destined for an exhibition at the palace of Venice. Perhaps it was this work that reawakened her love of the Lord. Certainly the loss of her dearest friendships left Claire with more time for Christian friends and her grief over their loss drove her to the Lord in a way that her many happy years never had, even when she had been so deeply faithful as a child. In the summer of 1974, shortly after the dissolution of her friendships, Claire made a trip to Lourdes, just the place for her to rediscover the joy of the Lord that had been so alive in her for so many years and that had nearly been snuffed out when she had become too busy for him and too concerned with the things of this world. After some time at home that summer, she received an unexpected invitation to make a three-week pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the fall. Claire was so moved by the experience that she wrote, “It is absolutely true that one cannot live the same before and after the Holy Land.” She had already repented of her lukewarm faith, but now she felt called to holiness in a profound way, moved above all by the witness of the other young people on the trip with her.

“Before, apart from Sunday Mass and my relationship with the Blessed Virgin, I lived like a pagan. I realize now how much everything in life has to be turned toward God; if we really think about it, it doesn’t even require any effort because it’s so natural.” Claire realized quite soon after her return to Rome that conversion of heart was not so easy; “you need to pray for me a lot,” she wrote to her parents, “because I’m realizing how hard it is to stay converted.”

Shortly after her return from the Holy Land, Claire was sent to Assisi to continue her education as an art restorer, this time working on the frescoes of the lower basilica of St. Francis. In Assisi, too, the Lord was drawing Claire to himself. While other students found various rooms to rent in town, Claire ended up living in a Benedictine monastery which she left early every morning so that she could attend daily Mass on her way to work. Then she made her way to the basilica and onto the lower level, where she was working in the chapel of St. Martin, the creation of the fourteenth-century artist Simone Martini. There Claire began by restoring the image of her patroness, the great St. Clare of Assisi. After a time, she realized how attached she was to her work on this image. Claire resolved to make an enormous sacrifice: to let another woman finish the work on St. Clare while Claire looked on, contenting herself to restore a column in the fresco instead. But God accepted this sacrifice and repaid Claire a hundredfold: the other woman was called away and Claire was assigned to finish the image of the Saint she loved so much. Upon her return, Claire discovered that the other woman had only begun work on the sky and the habit of the abbess; it was up to Claire to work on the most important parts of the image, to stare at the face of her patroness as she worked to conserve this great work of art.

Nor was this merely grunt work. Though tradition had long held this image to be a portrait of the holy foundress, the inscription beneath it was illegible. It was through Claire’s work and her use of an ultraviolet lamp that the text was finally made clear: SČA CLARA (Sancta Clara). Claire wrote home with joy about this discovery:

My dear parents, today is a historic day: the inscription under Saint Clare has been erased for so long that the oldest descriptions of the chapel say it is already illegible. Only tradition personifies this nun as Saint Clare. For three days, I had been racking my brains to imagine a text that would correspond to the few traces that remain: nothing doing… This morning, thanks to a famous ultraviolet lamp, I was able to reconstruct everything; and from now on, we will see under her portrait: SCA CLARA. It’s his-to-ri-que! This Sancta that gave me so much trouble is sca: you had to think about it!

When that piece was finished, Claire began work on a scene from the life of St. Martin of Tours, in which he had given his tunic to a beggar before celebrating Mass; when he elevated the host, angels descended to cover his bare arms and preserve the modesty that the saintly bishop had sacrificed for the sake of charity.

Claire was astonished by the work she was able to do and profoundly grateful for this avocation: “Even if I had to restore only these forty square centimeters,” she wrote, “I would be happy until the end of my life. There are effects of folds, of shades, of shadows, magical and amazing when you think that only two meters away there is nothing left of these details . . . nothing but an impression of lightness. . . .  And that from lower in the chapel you can see vaguely that it’s gold and that’s it.” This particular project was remarkable because Martini had used techniques much better suited to gilding wood and as such much of the gold leaf was lost; only through the work of Claire and her colleagues was it restored to its former glory.

Claire was a talented woman whose years of study made her remarkably successful in her work of art restoration. But her success was a product of more than mere talent; her work was not just labor but prayer. Her supervisor marveled, “She was caught up in her work, contemplating the sacred image she was restoring. She seemed to be praying even as she worked. In Claire’s gaze, during the restoration of the lower basilica of St. Francis, I caught a light, a radiance that touched me deeply.”

After the turmoil of her early months in Rome, Claire was finally at peace. She had resolved to be the woman God had made her to be, to be perfectly his with no concern for the opinions of others, and God had rewarded her abundantly. Claire wrote, “I believe that I was chosen by God to be the happiest of my generation.”

But it was not to last. In December of 1974, Claire had gone home for Christmas. She was so filled with the joy of the Lord that she remarked to her mother, “I am so happy that if I died now, I would go straight to heaven, because heaven is the worship of God and I’m already there.” She was preparing to return to Rome when she began to get headaches. When she came down with a fever, her doctor declared that she had the flu and Claire settled in to rest, playing Scrabble with her mother for several days until her headaches became too severe. She was taken to the hospital, then to another, where she was placed in the intensive care unit. There, she was finally diagnosed with meningoencephalitis. She died on January 22, less than three weeks after she had fallen ill.

It is a remarkably unremarkable story. A sweet young girl went through a phase of rebellion, came to her senses, and died shortly thereafter, having accomplished nothing of note. Why on earth a cause for canonization?

On a practical level, this question asks what made the Church aware of her holiness. There were many who mourned Claire’s death, but the overwhelming response of those who loved her was confidence that Claire was in heaven and a deep joy in the midst of their grief, even at Claire’s funeral. One neighbor described the ceremony in great astonishment: “Never have I felt the presence of God and the radiance of holiness in such an intense way.” So convinced were those who loved Claire that they soon began praying for Claire’s intercession; the first answered prayer was reported on the day of her funeral. Before long, letters began pouring in, testifying to the influence she had on people and to their confidence that she was in heaven. Many insisted that Claire’s intercession had wrought miracles in their lives. One Cistercian monastery asked Claire to send them vocations. The community was dying and only five nuns remained. They decided to pray with audacity and ask Claire for five more vocations—an astonishing goal for a cloistered monastery in 1979. When five women entered the following year, the nuns were convinced and resolved to take on Claire’s cause, since she had taken on theirs. Like many who knew Claire (and many others who have come to know her since her death), they feel that the reason for her canonization is clear.

The more important question, though, is why the Lord has raised Claire up as a model. A year before her death, she was wondering if she should even bother going to Mass on Sundays. Now people want to put a halo on her. There were no miracles in the interim, no apparitions or eloquent sermons, no stigmata or episodes of levitation. There was just an ordinary young woman who was given the strength to repent from her ordinary sin, to embrace an ordinary conversion, and to live an ordinary life of holiness. The mystics and miracle workers may be exciting, but far more compelling are the stories that remind us of ourselves: the toxic friendships, the poor choices in college, the dismissal of authority figures concerned for our welfare, the fading faith and creeping doubts and loneliness when surrounded by friends who don’t want what we want—or at least what we used to want. This is the power of Claire, talented artist and student, animal lover, and wayward child: the seasons when you were lost and the choices you regret do not have to define you. You do not have to be the person you were last week. There is always time to be made new, to find the joy that eludes you, to return to the love you had at first. There is hope not just for the fiendish but for the frivolous, not just for the wicked but for the world-weary. There is spiritual rebirth on offer even to those who have no interest in it, and though holiness is the work of a lifetime, it only takes a moment to become a saint.

Featured Image: Scene from above the tomb of Claire Castelbajac taken by Christophe971; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0



Meg Hunter-Kilmer

Meg Hunter-Kilmer is a hobo for Christ and a Fellow of the Sullivan Family Saints Initiative in the McGrath Institute for Church Life. She lives out of her car and travels the country speaking to youth and adults, giving retreats, and writing about the saints.

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