Life of St. Francis of Assisi
Childhood and early adulthood
Francis was born to Pietro di Bernardone, a rich cloth merchant, and
his wife Pica Bourlemont, about whom little is known except that she
was originally from France. He was one of seven children. Pietro was
in France on business when Francis was born, and Pica had him
baptized as Giovanni di Bernardone in honor of Saint John the
Baptist, in the hope he would grow to be a great religious leader.
When his father returned to Assisi, he was furious about this, as he
did not want his son to be a man of the Church and decided to call
him Francesco (an adjective meaning French in Italian), in honor of
his commercial success and enthusiasm for all things French
As a youth, Francesco--or Francis in English--became a troubador
and yearned to become a writer of French poetry. Although many
biographers remark about his bright clothing, rich friends, street
brawls, and love of pleasure; his displays of disillusionment toward
the world that surrounded him became fairly early, as is shown in the
"story of the beggar". In this account, he was selling cloth and velvet
in the marketplace on behalf of his father when a beggar came to him
and asked for alms. At the conclusion of his business deal, Francis
abandoned his wares and ran after the beggar. When he found him,
Francis gave the man everything he had in his pockets. His friends
quickly chided and mocked him for his act of charity. When he got
home, his father scolded him in rage.
In 1201, he joined a military expedition against Perugia, he was taken
as a prisoner at Collestrada, and spent a year as a captive. It is
probable that his conversion to more serious thoughts was a gradual
process relating to this experience. After his return to Assisi in 1203,
Francis recommenced his carefree life. In 1204, however, a serious started a spiritual crisis. In 1205 Francis left for Puglia to enlist in the
army of the Count of Brienne. In Spoleto, a strange vision made him return to Assisi, deepening his spiritual crisis.
It is said that thereafter he began to avoid the sports and the feasts of his former companions; in response, they asked him laughingly
whether he was thinking of marrying, to which he answered "yes, a fairer bride than any of you have ever seen", meaning his "lady
poverty". He spent much time in lonely places, asking God for enlightenment. By degrees he took to nursing lepers, the most repulsive
victims in the lazar houses near Assisi. After a pilgrimage to Rome, where he begged at the church doors for the poor, he claimed to
have had a mystical experience in the Church of San Damiano just outside of Assisi, in which the Icon of Christ Crucified came alive and
said to him three times, "Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins". He thought this to mean
the ruined church in which he was presently praying, and so sold his horse and some cloth from his father's store, to assist the priest
there for this purpose.
His father Pietro, highly indignant, attempted to change his mind, first with threats and then with corporal chastisement. After a final
interview in the presence of the bishop, Francis renounced his father and his patrimony, laying aside even the garments he had received
from him. For the next couple of months he lived as a beggar in the region of Assisi. Returning to the town for two years this time, he
restored several ruined churches, among them the Porziuncola, little chapel of St Mary of the Angels, just outside the town, which later
became his favorite abode.
Founding of the Order of Friars Minor
At the end of this period (according to Jordanus, on 24 February 1209), Francis
heard a sermon that changed his life. The sermon was about Matthew 10:9, in
which Christ tells his followers that they should go forth and proclaim that the
Kingdom of Heaven was upon them, that they should take no money with them,
nor even a walking stick or shoes for the road. Francis was inspired to devote
himself to a life of poverty.
Clad in a rough garment, barefoot, and, after the Evangelical precept, without
staff or scrip, he began to preach repentance. He was soon joined by his first
follower, a prominent fellow townsman, the jurist Bernardo di Quintavalle, who
contributed all that he had to the work. Within a year Francis had eleven
followers. Francis chose never to be ordained a priest and the community lived as
"lesser brothers," fratres minores in Latin.
The brothers lived a simple life in the deserted lazar house of Rivo Torto near
Assisi; but they spent much of their time wandering through the mountainous
districts of Umbria, always cheerful and full of songs, yet making a deep
impression on their hearers by their earnest exhortations.
In 1209 Francis led his first eleven followers to Rome to seek permission from Pope Innocent III to found a new religious order. Upon
entry to Rome, the brothers encountered Bishop Guido of Assisi, who had in his company the cardinal bishop of Sabina, Lord John
of St Paul. The Cardinal, who was the confessor of Pope Innocent III, was immediately sympathetic to Francis and agreed to
represent Francis to the pope. Reluctantly, Pope Innocent agreed to meet with Francis and the brothers the next day. After several
days, the pope agreed to informally admit the group, adding that when God increased the group in grace and number, they could
return for an official admittance. The group was tonsured and Francis was ordained as a deacon, allowing him to read Gospels in the
From then on, his new order grew quickly with new vocations. When hearing Francis preaching in
the church of San Rufino in Assisi in 1209, Clare of Assisi became deeply touched by his message
and she realized her calling. Her brother Rufino also joined the new order. On Palm Sunday, 28
March 1211 Francis received Clare at the Porziuncola and hereby established the Order of Poor
Dames, later called Poor Clares. In the same year, Francis left for Jerusalem, but he was
shipwrecked by a storm on the Dalmatian coast, forcing him to return to Italy.
On 8 May 1213 he received the mountain of La Verna (Alverna) as a gift from the count Orlando
di Chiusi who described it as “eminently suitable for whoever wishes to do penance in a place
remote from mankind.” The mountain would become one of his favorite retreats for prayer. In the
same year, Francis sailed for Morocco, but this time an illness forced him to break off his journey in
Spain. Back in Assisi, several noblemen (among them Tommaso da Celano, who would later write
the biography of St. Francis) and some well-educated men joined his order.
In 1215 Francis went again to Rome for the Fourth Lateran Council. During this time, he probably
met Dominic de Guzman.
In 1216 Francis received from the new pope Honorius III the confirmation of the indulgence of the
Porziuncola, now better known as the Pardon of Assisi, which the Pope decreed to be a complete
remission of their sins for all those who prayed in the Porziuncola.
In 1217 the growing congregation of friars was divided in provinces and groups were sent to
France, Germany, Hungary, Spain and to the East.
In 1219 Francis left, together with a few companions, on a pilgrimage of non-violence to Egypt.
Crossing the lines between the sultan and the Crusaders in Damietta, he was received by the
sultan Melek-el-Kamel. Francis challenged the Muslim scholars to a test of true religion by fire; but
they retreated. When Francis proposed to enter the fire first, under the condition that if he left the
fire unharmed, the sultan would have to recognize Christ as the true God, the sultan was so
impressed that he allowed Francis to preach to his subjects. Though Francis did not succeed in
converting the sultan, the last words of the sultan to Francis of Assisi were, according to Jacques
de Vitry, bishop of Acre, in his book "Historia occidentalis, De Ordine et praedicatione Fratrum
Minorum (1221)" : “Pray for me that God may deign to reveal to me that law and faith which is most
pleasing to him.”. At Acre, the capital of what remained of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, he rejoined
the brothers Elia and Pietro Cattini. Francis then most probably visited the holy places in Palestine
Although nativity drawings and paintings existed earlier, St Francis of Assisi celebrated Christmas
by setting up the first known three-dimensional presepio or crèche (Nativity scene) in the town of
Greccio near Assisi, around 1220. He used real animals to create a living scene so that the
worshipers could contemplate the birth of the child Jesus in a direct way, making use of the senses,
especially sight. Thomas of Celano, a biographer of Francis and Saint Bonaventure both tell how he only used a straw-filled manger (feeding trough) set between a real ox and donkey.
According to Thomas, it was beautiful in its simplicity with the manger acting as the altar for the Christmas Mass.
When receiving a report of the martyrdom of five brothers in Morocco, Francis returned to Italy via
Venice. Cardinal Ugolino di Conti was then nominated by the Pope as the protector of the order.
When problems arose in the order, a detailed rule became necessary. On 29 September 1220
Francis handed over the governance of the order to brother Pietro Cattini at the Porziuncola.
However, Brother Cattini died on 10 March 1221. He was buried in the Porziuncola. When
numerous miracles were attributed to the late Pietro Cattini, people started to flock to the
Porziuncola, disturbing the daily life of the Franciscans. Francis then prayed, asking Pietro to stop
the miracles and obey in death as he had obeyed during his life. The report of miracles ceased.
Brother Pietro was succeeded by brother Elia as vicar of Francis.
During 1221 and 1222 Francis crossed Italy, first as far south as Catania in Sicily and afterwards
as far north as Bologna.
On 29 November 1223 the final rule of the order (in twelve chapters) was approved by Pope
While he was praying on the mountain of Verna, during a forty day fast in preparation for
Michaelmas, Francis is said to have had a vision on or about 14 September 1224, the Feast of the
Exaltation of the Cross, as a result of which he received the stigmata. Brother Leo, who had been
with Francis at the time, left a clear and simple account of the event, the first definite account of
the phenomenon of stigmata. "Suddenly he saw a vision of a seraph, a six-winged angel on a
cross. This angel gave him the gift of the five wounds of Christ."
Suffering from these Stigmata and from an eye disease, he received care in several cities (Siena,
Cortona, Nocera) to no avail. In the end he was brought back to the Porziuncola. He was brought
to the transito, the hut for infirm friars, next to the Porziuncola. Here, in the place where it all
began, feeling the end approaching, he spent the last days of his life dictating his spiritual
testament. He died on the evening of 3 October 1226 singing Psalm 141. His feast day is observed
On 16 July 1228 he was pronounced a saint by the next pope Gregory IX, the former cardinal
Ugolino di Conti, friend and protector of St. Francis. The next day, the pope laid the foundation
stone for the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi.
He was buried on 25 May 1230 under the Lower Basilica. His burial place remained inaccessible
until it was rediscovered in 1818. Pasquale Belli then constructed for his remains a crypt in
neo-classical style under the Lower Basilica. It was refashioned between 1927 and 1930 into its
present form by Ugo Tarchi, stripping the wall of its marble decorations. In 1978 the remains of St.
Francis were identified by a commission of scholars, appointed by pope Paul VI and put in a glass
urn in the ancient stone tomb.
St. Francis is considered the first Italian poet by literary critics. He believed commoners should be
able to pray to God in their own language, and he wrote always in dialect of Umbria instead of
Latin. His writings are considered to have great literary value, as well as religious.