St. Frances of Rome

Saint Françoise Romaine and the demon - Fresco from the Oblate Monastery of Mont-Olivet - Rome
Sainte Françoise Romaine et le démon.

St. Frances of Rome (1384-1440) was the usual female saint who discovered a vocation for religion when her parents tried to marry her off. In this case though, the parents prevailed, and she was married to the son of a wealthy family at the age of twelve.

The times were difficult, wolves roamed the streets, and two of their children died of plague. When her mother-in-law died, the management of the household fell on St. Frances — she received the keys, which was a huge thing for women in medieval times — and she turned her in-laws’ estate into a hospital. Eventually she founded a monastery for secular nuns, who could belong even if they were married. This was also a thing in Europe: semi-religious houses where vows were not required, for instance the beguines (although for some reason Wikipedia thinks they need to be lumped in with male beghards), and for a while at least they had the papal blessing. A good thing too, because she retired there, along with some other wealthy women, and didn’t have to move in with her children, assuming any of them were still surviving by then.

Here is a painting by Poussin from the Louvre of Saint Frances announcing the end of the plague in Rome.

“The painting refers to the end of an outbreak of plague that struck a number of Italian cities, including Rome, in 1656. The terrified population called on Saint Frances, reputed as a miracle worker. Cardinal Rospigliosi must have commissioned Poussin to paint this homage to the saint after 1657, when the outbreak showed signs of coming to an end.”

Unfortunately the Wikipedia article for St. Frances has a few glitches.

The Wikipedia article is, as usual, long on the hagiography – lengthy descriptions of miracles and visions etc – and short on facts, like money. But this link has a fascinating glimpse into the relationship between the women in wealthy families and the religious establishment of the day. For instance, we find out that

The Ponziani palace was in the Trastevere section of Rome, and just around the corner was the little church of San Francesco a Ripa. This church had been given in 1212 to St. Francis by the Roman lady Giacoma di Settesoli (Brother Jacoba), who in 1226 was present at the death of the Poverello. …It was at San Francesco a Ripa that Frances Ponziani was received into the Third Order of St. Francis; and one of the priests there, Father Bartholomew Bondi, became her spiritual director.

So “the Poverello” is St. Francis of Assisi, and the church San Francesco a Ripa was dedicated to him.   Giacoma di Settesoli (“Jacoba of Settesoli“) was a wealthy widow who Francis of Assisi stayed with whenever he was in town, and who gave him some property for a leper hospital and paid for its running expenses. When Francis of Assisi was on his deathbed in the friary, he expressed a wish for her almond pastries, however the friary was off-limits to women.  But Jacoba of Settesoli had already arrived with the pastries, her two sons, and an entire retinue. Francis of Assisi named her “Brother Jacoba”, she was allowed to enter with her entourage.  She stayed at his bedside until his death.

The Franciscans seem quite eager to claim her as their own:

In 1425, she and a half dozen other Roman ladies, her companions, were clothed as oblates of St. Benedict. This apparently did not cancel her membership in the Third Order; for, at this time she and Vanozza made a pilgrimage to Assisi, walking the one hundred miles from Rome to the city of St. Francis.

There is more in the link about the history of Rome, the Ponziani family and their religious patronage, also it states “John Baptist, the oldest son, was taken hostage“, while Wikipedia has a story about some miracle that prevented the son from being taken hostage.  It’s a shame really  – a nice link that can send you down several rabbit holes if you aren’t careful – but the group’s more recent websites seem to have been dumbed down.

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