Frances of Rome is an Italian saint, wife, mother, mystic, organizer of charitable work and a Benedictine oblate who founded a religious community of oblates who share a common life without religious vows (still exists today). She is a wonderful example to the church who was faithful to God and remarkable in her charitable work for the poor. She also shows us what happens when we submit to God’s will even when it contrasts with our own.
Frances was born in 1384 in Rome to a wealthy and aristocratic couple in the district of Parione and christened in the nearby Church of St. Agnes on the famed Piazza Novona. When she was eleven, she wanted to become a nun but her parents had other ideas. They had already arranged for her to be married. Her soul was troubled at this point. Yet God granted her a special grace by sending her an archangel to be her guardian angel. The angel questioned her about her motives to become a nun despite her parents’ wishes. Was this honoring to God? She decided to submit to her parents and married Lorenzo Ponziani, commander of the papal troops of Rome and member of an extremely wealthy family. The marriage was a happy one, lasting forty years, partly because Lorenzo admired his wife and partly because he was frequently away at war.
With her sister-in-law, Vannozza, Frances visited the poor and took care of the sick, inspiring other wealthy women of the city to do the same. Soon after her marriage, she fell seriously ill. Her husband called in a man who dabbled in magic but she drove him away. She later recounted that Saint Alexis had appeared to her and cured her.
When her mother-in-law died, Frances became mistress of the household. During a time of flood and famine, she turned part of the family’s country estate into a hospital and she distributed food and clothing to the poor. This angered her father-in-law and he took away her keys to the supply rooms. But then something miraculous occurred: the corn bin and wine barrel were replenished after she finished praying. Upon seeing this, her father-in-law handed the keys back to her. This was also the catalyst for her husband’s conversion.
During the wars of the Great Schism, Lorenzo served the pope in Rome. Their son, Batista, was to be delivered as a hostage to the commander of the Neapolitan troops. Obeying this order on the command of her spiritual director, Frances brought the boy to Campidoglio. Along the way, she stopped in the Church of Aracoeli and entrusted the life of her son to the Blessed Mother. Upon their arrival, the troops put her son on a horse to transport him off to captivity. The horse, however, refused to move despite heavy whipping. The soldiers saw the hand of God in this and returned the boy to his mother.
During a period of exile, much of Lorenzo’s property and possessions were destroyed. In the course of one occupation of Rome by Neapolitan troops, Lorenzo was severely wounded and never fully recovered. Frances nursed him throughout the rest of his life.
She experienced other sorrows as well. She lost two children to the plague. Chaos abounded in Rome in that period of neglect by the pope and ongoing warfare between him and other forces competing for power in Italy. Rome was in ruins and wolves roamed the streets. Once again, Frances saw the opportunity for ministry and responded. She opened her home as a hospital and drove her wagon through the countryside to collect wood for fire and herbs for medicine. It is said that she had the gift of healing and over sixty cases were attested to during the canonization proceedings.
The Catholic Encyclopedia writes, “With her husband’s consent, Frances practiced continence, and advanced in a life of contemplation. Her visions often assumed the form of drama enacted for her by heavenly patronages. She had a gift of miracles and ecstasy, as well as the bodily vision of her guardian angel, had revelations concerning purgatory and hell, and foretold the ending of the Great Schism. She could read the secrets of consciences and detect plots of diabolical origin. She was remarkable for her humility and detachment, her obedience and patience.”
On August 15, 1425, the Feast of the Assumption, she founded the Olivetan Oblates of Mary, a confraternity of pious women, under the authority of the Olivetan monks of Santa Maria Nova in Rome. But these women would neither be cloistered nor bound by formal vows in order so they could follow her pattern of combining a life of prayer with answering the needs of their society.
In March 1433, she founded a monastery at Tor de’ Specchi, near the Campidoglio, in order to allow for a common life by those members of the confraternity who felt called to this. It remains the only house of the Institute. On July 4 of that year, they received the approval of Pope Eugene IV as a religious congregation of oblates with private religious vows. They later became known simply as the Oblates of St. Frances of Rome.
Frances herself remained in her own home, nursing her husband for the last seven years of his life from his battle wounds. When he died in 1436, she moved into the monastery and became their superior. She died in 1440 and was buried in Santa Maria Nova.
On May 9, 1608, she was canonized by Pope Paul V and in the following decades there was a diligent search for her remains, which had been hidden due to the troubled times in which she lived. Her body was found incorrupt some months after her death. Her grave was identified on April 2, 1638 (but this time only the bones remained) and her remains were reburied in the Church of Santa Maria Nova on March 9, 1649, which has since then been her feast day. In 1869, her body was exhumed and has since been on display in a glass coffin for the veneration of the faithful. The Church of Santa Maria Nova is often referred to as the Church of St. Frances.
In 1925, Pope Pious XI declared her the patron saint of automobile drivers because of the account that an angel used to light the road before her with a lantern when she traveled, keeping her safe from hazards. She is honored as the patron saint of oblates. She is also the patron saint of widows.
Frances had an implicit trust in God: suffering from a painful illness, giving away food to the poor and never wavering from her faith when ridiculed. Frances shows us the balance of active life, prayer and works of charity. She believed her family came first and must never be slighted in order to spend more time in prayer or acts of charity. As a Benedictine oblate myself, she certainly serves as an example to me and I hope you as well.