A celebration of St. Francis

St. Francis Around Town:
A Vision of Simplicity for the City Different
By Gregory Pleshaw

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred – Let me show Love
Where there is injury – Pardon
Where there is doubt – Faith
Where there is despair – Hope
Where there is darkness – Light
And where there is sadness – Joy

– a prayer of St. Francis

In 1610, when Don Pedro de Peralta founded the city of Santa Fe under the direction of the Viceroy of Spain, he gave it an official name – “La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís”, or “The Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi.” This lengthy moniker, (perhaps the longest for a U.S. city) would forever forge an inseparable bond between Santa Fe and its patron saint.

Historically, St. Francis presents a fascinating picture. Born in 1182 to a wealthy merchant in Assisi, Italy, he was christened Giovanni di Bernadone in honor of St. John the Baptist by his mother, who hoped he would become a man of the Church. His father, Pietro di Bernadone, would hear nothing of that and re-named the child Franceso, and hoped he would also become a merchant.

For a time, he chose neither. It may surprise some to learn that St. Francis spent his youth and early adulthood living as a troubadour, a carefree poet to whom street brawls and pleasures of the flesh were presumably not unknown. In 1201 he joined the military and spent a year as a captive, but it wasn’t until 1205 on an expedition to Spoleto that he had a strange vision that led him to abandon his carefree ways and begin to care for lepers in Assisi.

But his true conversion to the Church came in 1206, when he had a mystical vision of Jesus Christ in the Church of San Damiano. There, an Icon of the Crucifixion came alive and said to him three times, “Francis, Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins”. Francesco took this literally, and attempted to repair various churches in the region, but eventually he came to realize that the vision intended him to repair the figurative House of the Lord and take his place within it. Soon afterwards, in 1209, Francesco founded the Order of Friars Minor, otherwise known as the Franciscans, which dedicated themselves to poverty & the Gospels. After a lifetime of service to the Lord, Francesco died in 1226 and was declared a Saint in 1228.

Monsignor Jerome is no stranger to both the living and the mythical St. Francis. A Catholic priest who serves as the rector for St. Francis Cathedral-Basilica, the Monsignor was born a 13th generation New Mexican and he has proudly served his Church and his community in the Santa Fe archdiocese since his ordination 33 years ago. Entering seminary at the age of 13, the Monsignor has had plenty of time to reflect on the historic life of St. Francis, and he believes that St. Francis has a lot to offer modern Santa Fe, both Catholics and its more secular citizens.

“St. Francis is everybody’s saint,” said the Monsignor. “You don’t have to be a Catholic to profit from the life and lessons of St. Francis. He typifies simplicity and poverty in following the life of Christ. Though he was a wealthy man and was raised in privilege, he ultimately turned his back on all of that to live as the Christ. He made following Christ seem so simple, and by living the simple life he offered a message that is true today. For God does not find us by running an obstacle course through our possessions. In this time of the economy as bad as it is, we need to recall St. Francis and remember how he lived to get closer to God and to follow his example.”

Today, St. Francis’ Annual Feast Day falls on October 4th, and it is on this day that the priests in the Cathedral will take the time to bless pets. For in addition to his other many deeds as a man of the Lord, St. Francis is also strongly associated in the public mind with being the patron saint of animals. Monsignor Jerome also had insight into this perception and why it is so prevalent an association for casual followers of St. Francis.

“There are three reasons why St. Francis is associated with animals,” said the Monsignor. “The first is because he believed that all god’s creatures – including the animals – glowed with the power of God’s love. The second is that, when he first began to preach, he wouldn’t always be successful preaching to people. So he would preach to the animals instead, and the stories tell us that animals would stop what they were doing and listen. And the third reason has to do with a Wolf in Gubbio who was eating the people. St. Francis went to meet with the wolf and made a deal with him that if the people fed the Wolf, the Wolf would stop eating the people.”

That ability to “talk” to the animals led to the strong associations that people have with St. Francis as close to the animals, and it is that very Wolf – or at least a vision of it – that appears alongside St. Francis in the prominent bronze statue of the Saint that stands in front of the Cathedral today.

Today, the visage of St. Francis can be seen in various locations around the City Different, including in front of two of our most important buildings, namely, City Hall on Marcy Street and the St. Francis Basillica on Cathedral Place. But his likeness is not limited to there, as this list/side-bar will show:

1) The St. Francis-Basilica Cathedral, (downtown, 213 Cathedral Place) features a bronze statue of St. Francis accompanied by a wolf in front of the church, as well as frenetic looking bronze with wings that could be called the “Dancing St. Francis.” There is also a white stone statue of St. Francis on the southerly side of the building facing westward, and inside the Church, behind the altar and set within the wall, is an 18th century bulto of St. Francis complete with blue vestaments.

2) In front of Santa Fe City Hall (downtown, 200 Lincoln Avenue) features a diminutive bronze statue of St. Francis along with some squirrels. San Francisco de Asis, Andrea Bacigalupa, 1980. Bronze.

3) Inside the New Mexico Museum of Art (downtown, 107 W. Palace Avenue) there are two works of art that depict St. Francis. A) In the St. Francis Auditorium, there are a series of murals that depict St. Francis. B) In the St. Francis Sculpture Garden, there’s also a statue of St. Francis.

4) St. Francis Cathedral School (downtown, 275 E. Alameda Street) there are two works of art that depict St. Francis. One is a mural on the outside of the school which features St. Francis surrounded by little children. On the inside is a series of murals that line the walls of this now defunct school. The interior murals cannot currently be viewed by the public.

5) In the Adam Gabriel Armijo Park (aka “the Cerro Gordo Park,” east side, 1402 Cerro Gordo Street) there is an old style folk-statue of St. Francisco surrounded by small animals. Originally rendered in wood, this piece is bronzed but maintains an earthy quality to it. St. Francis, Ben and Pete Ortega, 1997. Bronze.

January 20th, 2009 by