In the year 1182, in the little town of Assisi, near Perugia, Italy, a son was born to a rich merchant named Pietro Bernadone. His baptismal name was Giovanni, “John,” but his father renamed him Francesco, “Frenchman,” because Pietro was fond of France.
As a youth, Francesco eagerly exercised chivalry and arms, and while taking part in one of the petty feuds of the day, he was imprisoned at Perugia for a year.
While in Perugia, Francesco became ill, and after being released from prison, he spent much of his time in contemplation. Soon he renounced his former way of life and went on a pilgrimage to Rome in 1206. Thereafter, Francis, as he was now known, renounced his considerable inheritance, broke with his family, and consecrated himself to poverty and a religious life.
No humiliation, no self-sacrifice was too great. He refused any but the simplest clothing—a single gray tunic of coarse woolen cloth belted at the waist by a rope—and begged for alms at the gates of monasteries. He served the leper colony at Gubbio for some time and later worked with his own hands in rebuilding the churches of St. Damian and St. Mary of the Angels.
Francis founded the Franciscan Order in 1208. The irresistible gentleness of the Franciscan spirit soon swept throughout Europe, and when the first general assembly of the Order was held in 1219, some 5,000 friars were present.
Few groups had such a moderating influence on the turbulent times. Teaching, preaching, and helping the poor were only part of their work. Led by St. Francis, the friars recorded much of the history of the times and made valuable contributions to literature and theological writings.