An important Roman saint and special patroness of Benedictine oblates is Saint Frances of Rome. She was born in Rome in 1384, a time of famine, war and epidemics in the Eternal City. As an adult, Frances took on numerous charitable works on behalf of the poor of Rome and was eventually given the title, even in her lifetime, “Romana,” or “of Rome,” in recognition of her efforts. She has continued to be called “of Rome,” and her intercession is regularly sought in her role as an Advocate for the people of Rome. One of her titles is “Advocata Urbis,” Latin for, “Protectress of the City.”
I witnessed her enduring popularity in a very real way on March 9th this year, the feast day of Saint Frances of Rome, when I met over a thousand people who came to see her cell and chapel here in Rome, containing marvelous frescoes of her life, housed in the monastery Frances founded and where her sisters still reside. This is the famous “Tor de’ Specchi,” (literally, “Tower of Mirrors”) monastery, where we nearby monks at Sant’Ambrogio take turns celebrating Mass each morning for the six sisters at Tor de’Spechhi, who are called Oblates of Saint Frances of Rome.
Each year on March 9th, rain or shine (this year it was sunny all day), people line up in droves to enter the 14th century part of the monastery, to climb the flight of stairs and see where Saint Frances lived as a sister and the chapel dedicated to her honor, adorned with frescoes by the renowned artist Antoniazzo Romano, who lived from 1435 to about 1517. March 9th is the only day in the year when the visit is possible.
More than tourists, it seemed to me, mostly devout Romans were present to visit the beautiful rooms of Saint Frances of Rome on March 9th. Four of us monks from Sant’Ambrogio were on hand to answer questions and help “control the traffic” of the many who had come to honor their special patroness.
It was very moving for me to see the people’s devotion and love for a special saint of Rome. Yes, there were tourist groups as well, but the vast majority seemed to be people from Rome itself. I was told people of Rome wait in eager anticipation for the one day each year when they can see firsthand the rooms of their beloved saint.
In years past other parts of the monastery were open to the public on March 9th as well, including the monastery choir, refectory and cloister. With fewer sisters now than in the past, it is too much of a strain to have a thousand people walking through their house on a single day, so the visit is limited now to the old entrance portal and porch of the monastery, a flight of stairs with beautiful frescoes on the walls, and the two rooms mentioned above.
The charitable work of Saint Frances of Rome, who died in 1440 when she was only 56 years old, was not limited to the material needs of the destitute, for whom she had turned her home in the Trastevere neighborhood nearby into a hospital. Frances also tended to the moral needs of her fellow citizens, helping to end quarrels within and between families, reconciling enemies, and encouraging those in trouble of one kind or another.
As a young married woman, Frances endured personal family trials, including her husband Lorenzo de’ Ponziani being seriously wounded in battle while leading his men as the head of the Trastevere Quarter in defense of the pope. Frances suffered the exile of her brother-in-law, also the capture and imprisonment of her son Battista, as well as the death of her other two children, a son named Evangelista and daughter named Agnes. In addition to these setbacks, Frances also had to endure the looting and ransacking of her home and all its contents on one occasion.
That was a lot to go through in a relatively short life, but Frances bore it all patiently and even joyfully. It is said that she radiated a charm that struck all whom she met, especially those who came to see her in their desire for living a life of holiness. Relatives and friends of Frances gathered around her to lead more Christian lives in their own families and life settings.
Some of these relatives and friends formed the nucleus of the first “oblates” that Frances thought of gathering together under the same roof. She was encouraged to go forth with the project by a number of visions of Our Lady which set down the way in which their life together should be structured as well as be inspired by the Rule of Saint Benedict.
Frances of Rome founded the “Oblates of Mary,” as they were first called, on March 25th, 1433, when she was about forty-nine years old. These women lived at Tor de’ Spechhi, in the heart of ancient Rome, near the ruins of the “Teatro di Marcello,” in what is now called the “Centro Storico” (Historic Center) of Rome, close to what is now our Subiaco Cassinese Congregation’s curia of Sant’Ambrogio, where I live.
Frances desired that her sisters be united in prayer and penance for the good of the Church, for the pope and for Rome, voluntarily bound by promises (rather than formal vows) of stability, conversion of life and obedience under the Rule of Saint Benedict. Olivetan Benedictine monks were her special friends and helpers in establishing the Oblates of Mary.
In addition to a different approach to Benedictine vows, Frances took a new direction regarding cloister. Not wishing her daughters to be bound by the norms of strict monastic enclosure for women religious at that time, Frances impressed upon her followers the need for an interior detachment from material things and fostered real solidarity with people outside the monastery. On a practical level that meant her sisters were to be engaged in some forms of charitable work.
This is still technically the case of the Oblates of Saint Frances of Rome at least up until very recent times. Diminishing numbers have more or less forced the present sisters at Tor de’Spechhi to follow a more enclosed life. Not that this is bad, but the “Santa Francesa Roma” style of monastic observance has become harder to maintain. As said earlier, just six sisters now reside at Tor de’Spechhi. They and we pray that more will join them or that a community with larger numbers might come to help with reinforcement. The latter idea of asking another community to help would, of course, have to come from the initiative of the Oblates of Saint Frances at Tor de’Spechhi themselves.
We monks who came to help the sisters at Tor de’ Spechhi on March 9th this year arrived at about 8:45 am, just as the huge old entrance door was being opened. Already there were many people awaiting admittance. The visit was free of charge and open to all. We four monks, two of the Tor de’Spechhi sisters, as well as the cook at our curia and some laymen who are friends of the sisters, spent the next three and a half hours welcoming the visitors.
We were told that the numbers on the sidewalk outside was quite impressive. In fact we never got to see this, keeping very busy inside, and by the time we left for a break at noon, the numbers outside had begun to diminish. I presume people were told that the monastery would be closed from midday until mid-afternoon.
True to form, that is, closing churches, museums, etc., during the lunch (pranzo) and siesta time, visits to the rooms at Tor de’Spechii were suspended from about noon until 2:30 p.m on March 9th.
I should mention that here the afternoon is normally described using military time, so 2:30 p.m. is simply, 14.30. As such, there no need for saying “a.m.” or “p.m.,” though both of these designations, a.m. and p.m., are in fact of Latin origin.
When the entrance to the Oblate sisters’ monastery was opened again at 14.30, there were already many at the door, anxious to get a look inside. People steadily continued to arrive until about 16.30 (4:30 p.m.). By the end of the day I was more than a little tired of standing for so many hours and answering the same questions dozens of times: Who painted the beautiful frescoes? Answer: Antoniazzo Romano. Is the monastery open to visitors other days of the year? Answer: No. Can we see the refectory, present choir and cloister too? Answer: No, even though it was once possible. And so on.
Frances of Rome died on March 9th, 1440, a peaceful transfer from this life to the life she longed for, with God and all the saints forever. Her tomb is in the church of Santa Maria Nuova in Rome, also called “Santa Francesca Romana,” an Olivetan Benedictine monastery founded in 1351. That church is very close to the Coliseum and there are still Olivetan Benedictine monks at Santa Maria Nuova.
Frances of Rome was canonized on May 29th, 1608, by Pope Paul V. In 1925 Pope Pius XI named Saint Frances of Rome patron saint of automobile drivers. The reason for this, I was told, comes from the tradition of a guardian angel being entrusted to her by her son Evangelista. Having died in the plague of 1411, the son appeared after his death to his mother. In the vision, Evangelista was accompanied by an angel who was left with Frances as a visible companion for the rest of her life. The angel is said to have guided Frances by carrying a lamp at night, to keep her from hazardous travel. Hence the car connection!
After her own death, the Oblate sisters of Tor de’Spechhi desired to honor their foundress by having their original oratory (chapel) walls completely decorated with miracle scenes from the life of Saint Frances of Rome. These brightly colored masterpieces were done, as already mentioned, by Antonianzzo Romano and finished in 1468. They remain the central place of pilgrimage for the March 9th visitors to Tor de’ Spechhi.
Up the narrow and steep staircase from the beautiful oratory is the cell of Saint Frances, with a series of frescoes done by an unknown artist, completed in 1485. This series is monochrome, that is, of one color, a greenish hue, depicting scenes from the life of Saint Francis of Rome. Her life was first written by a certain Fra (Brother) Ippolito, though I am not finding a date for its composition.
Church historians recognize the influence of Saint Frances of Rome on a number of important founders and saints, including Saint Bernardine of Siena and Saint John of Capistrano, both Franciscans who were present for the burial of Saint Frances Romana. Also influenced by the spirituality of Saint Frances of Rome were Saints Philip Neri, John Leonardi, Robert Bellermine, Gaspar del Bufalo, Vincent Palloti, Francis de Sales and John Bosco. An impressive lineup of Santa Francesca “friends and fans,” to say the least!
The sisters of Tor de’ Spechhi, while fewer in number today, carry on the life of prayer and work as Benedictines. It is a special honor for me to regularly assist them by presiding at Mass for them at 6:30 a.m. on weekdays and 7:00 a.m. on Sundays in their beautiful choir chapel.
Visit the Tor de’Spechhi website. While the text is in Italian, the excellent photo gallery gives a good sense of the fine art work and architecture of this jewel in the middle of Rome, part of which is accessible to the public each year, but only on March 9th. Plan your next pilgrimage to Rome to coincide with the date!