Founding of the Franciscans Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The founding of the Franciscans represented the first time in Catholic Church history in which religious brothers and sisters were allowed to live in strict poverty, owning nothing, and the first time that men of a religious order were allowed to go about preaching as opposed to living in a monastery.

Summary of Event

Saint Francis of Assisi Francis of Assisi, Saint (then Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone), the son of a cloth merchant, was an ordinary young man, very popular with his friends, and he dreamed of knighthood and marriage. When war broke out between his hometown and the neighboring Perugia, he found himself in prison, captured by the enemy. Pietro, his father, bailed him out, but Francis had contracted some illness. When Francis recovered, he was changed. He still went out with his friends but was more reflective and thoughtful. [kw]Founding of the Franciscans (April 16, 1209) [kw]Franciscans, Founding of the (April 16, 1209) Franciscans Italy;Apr. 16, 1209: Founding of the Franciscans[2220] Organizations and institutions;Apr. 16, 1209: Founding of the Franciscans[2220] Religion;Apr. 16, 1209: Founding of the Franciscans[2220] Francis of Assisi, Saint Clare of Assisi, Saint Innocent III

When the pope called for a crusade, Francis had the chance to be a knight. His father dressed him in a new coat of armor and gave him a new horse, and Francis rode off to war. Within a short time, however, he again became ill and returned home. He went to the little church of San Damiano, which was falling down, and he heard the crucifix telling him to “Rebuild my church.” At first, Francis thought that he should buy or beg for stones to rebuild San Damiano. A turning point in his life occurred when he stole money from his father’s store to buy stones and his father demanded the money back. Francis not only returned the money but also took off all his clothes and gave them to his father. As he handed over his clothing, Francis said that from now on his father was not Pietro but only God.

A Beguin woman. The Beguins, composed of a variety of pious laywomen, were among the many monastic movements that, along with the Franciscans and Clares, arose in the early twelfth century; however, the Beguins were a lay order, not under vows to the Catholic Church.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

From this point forward, Francis was completely changed. With a few followers, he wandered around fixing churches and preaching poverty. At this point, Clare Clare of Assisi, Saint , a young noblewoman, heard about Francis’s preaching. She was attracted to what Francis was saying about poverty and wanted to follow his style of life in a way that would be appropriate for a woman. Francis established Clare, her sister, and several other women from Clare’s household at San Damiano. Other women soon joined them, and the group became known as the Damianites Damianites .

Lest he be thought heretical, Francis determined to go to Rome to get permission for his group. At first, Pope Innocent III Innocent III would not listen to what looked like a pack of stragglers, but that night the pope had a dream that the church was falling down, and a man dressed like Francis was holding it up. The next day, April 16, 1209, Innocent III gave oral permission for the new order.

From this time on, Francis and his brothers spent their time preaching, rebuilding churches, and begging for whatever they needed. Francis called his group “little brothers,” or friars minor. They refused money and attempted to live literally like Jesus had, having nowhere to sleep except for the ground and no clothes except rags, a rope around their waists, and no shoes. Clare and her followers also lived according to this ideal. They did not preach but prayed and fasted, eating what people brought to them or what the brothers begged for them. They spent their time doing needlework and raising some of their own food. Clare insisted that the sisters be kind and loving to one another, and Clare herself washed the feet of her sisters and cleaned their mattresses.

Before Francis died in 1226, five thousand men had been accepted into the order. As human nature would have it, controversies arose as to how the brothers should live. Francis wanted no houses or property, but there were some who could not see how the order would survive without them. In countries in which the weather was cold, the brothers needed shoes and warmer clothing. Because Francis’s talent was more charismatic than administrative, he handed the running of the order to his trusted friend, Brother Elias. Yet Brother Elias felt that the order should own property. This disagreement caused dissention before and after Francis died. Christianity;Italy Italy;Christianity

Saint Francis and his brotherhood.

(Library of Congress)

About a month before he died, Francis spent the night at Mount Alverna. In the sky, there appeared a six-winged angel who marked Francis’s body with the wounds of Jesus crucified. It seems that Francis’s desire to live the way Jesus did reached a climax with this incident, called the stigmata. Francis died on October 4, 1226, a date on which Franciscans throughout the world celebrate his life and death. On the way to the burial, his body was taken to Clare and her sisters to view.

After Francis’s death, the controversy over property and spirituality continued. A group who called themselves the Spirituals Spirituals (monastic movement) wanted to remain faithful to the primitive ideal of Francis and Clare, living a life of poverty and prayer. Before long, this movement disappeared, but in the 1300’, a group formed who called themselves Observants Observants (monastic movement) . They took what was best from the Spirituals and committed themselves to living a more austere life. In 1517, the Franciscans divided into two groups: the Conventuals Conventuals (monastic movement) and the Friars Minor of the Regular Observance Friars Minor of the Regular Observance . Some broke away from this second group to form the Capuchins Capuchins , or “the strict observance.” Pope Clement VII recognized them in 1527 as the third independent branch of the order. Many others also broke away and formed new convents and monasteries. In 1897, Leo X joined all families into one large order, the Order of Friars Minor.

Clare’s community went through the same sort of struggle. In 1227, at eighty-two years of age, Cardinal Ugolino (1227-1241), one of the first followers of Francis, was elected the new pope, Gregory IX Gregory IX . Clare asked to be allowed to live according to the poverty of Francis. The pope agreed, but he determined that he would restrict this privilege to the house of Poor Ladies at San Damiano because with no property, the Poor Ladies lacked the necessities of life. Pope Gregory pleaded with Clare to accept some possessions, but Clare refused. He offered to release Clare from her vows to stop their shortages of provisions and relieve their suffering, but Clare would not yield. “Never do I wish, Holy Father, to be released in any way from following Christ.”

During Clare’s lifetime, many houses of Damianites sprang up throughout Italy and in most of Europe. Some 147 houses were founded before Clare’s death in 1253. At least 47 houses were founded in Spain during the thirteenth century. Under the influence of Agnes of Prague, houses of Clarisses were founded in Moravia between 1242 and 1248, and a house for sixty nuns was founded in Poland in 1254 but destroyed in 1259 by the invasion of the Tartars. Meanwhile, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary inspired many women, and a house of Poor Clares Poor Clares was established at Trnava in 1238. Isabelle of France, who was the only daughter of Louis VIII and Blanche of Castille, joined the Poor Ladies in 1252 and established a convent at Longchamps in 1261.


By living in poverty, the Franciscans stood in opposition to the wealthy and the often corrupt church of the Middle Ages. Men and women flocked to the brotherhood and sisterhood in order to live a spiritual and holy life.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Armstrong, Regis J., J. A. Wayne Hellman, and William J. Short, eds. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. 3 vols. New York: New City Press, 1999-2001. The three books of this set, The Saint, The Founder, and The Prophet, contain translated biographies, hagiographies, and other early writings concerning Saint Francis and the Franciscans. An excellent collection of early sources that contains explanatory notes. Maps and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bartoli, Marco. Clare of Assisi. Translated by Sister Frances Teresa. Quincy, Ill.: Franciscan Press, 1993. This scholarly biography places Clare in the larger context of later medieval Italy. In particular, her accomplishments are set against the cultural currents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cowan, James. Francis: A Saint’s Way. Ligouri, Mo.: Liguori/Triumph, 2001. A devotional biography of Saint Francis of Assisi that focuses on his inner life, including questions of asceticism and poverty. Contains a bibliography.
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    Francis and Clare: The Complete Works. Translated by Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady. New York: Paulist Press, 1982. This edition of the writings of both Assisi saints contains comprehensive introductions to the life of each and clarifies the audience for and purpose of the different writings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frugoni, Chiara. Francis of Assisi: A Life. New York: Continuum, 1998. A biography of Saint Francis of Assisi. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">House, Adrian. Francis of Assisi. New York: HiddenSpring, 2001. A treatment of the life of Francis of Assisi that attempts to deal with the miracles and other legends in a way so that non-Christians can appreciate the saint’s life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peterson, Ingrid J. Clare of Assisi: A Biographical Study. Quincy, Ill.: Franciscan Press, 1993. Recent scholarship has begun to uncover the history of women of the Middle Ages. For Clare, much of this work has been done in conjunction with the 800th anniversary of her birth.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robson, Michael. Saint Francis of Assisi: The Legend and the Life. London: Geoffre Chapman, 1999. A biography of Saint Francis that describes both the legends and his life. Bibliography and index.
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    xlink:type="simple">Rotzetter, Anton, Willibrord-Christian Van Dijk, and Taddee Matura. Gospel Living: Francis of Assisi Yesterday and Today. Saint Bonaventure, N.Y.: Saint Bonaventure University, 1994. In three parts, this book tells the life of Saint Francis, the history of the order including the saints, writings and activities of the friars in many countries, and the present status of the order.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sabatier, Paul. The Road to Assisi: The Essential Biography of Saint Francis. Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete Press, 2003. A new edition of a classic biography of Saint Francis of Assisi by a French Protestant.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spoto, Donald. Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi. New York: Viking Compass, 2002. In this biography of the saint, Spoto tries to distinguish between legend and fact, citing reasons for his beliefs, and describes the political scene at the time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolf, Kenneth Baxter. The Poverty of Riches: Saint Francis of Assisi Reconsidered. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Wolf takes a critical look at the poverty pursued by Saint Francis of Assisi and what it meant for those impoverished people in Assisi. He examines the saint’s contact with the leper and his wearing of a tunic.

Categories: History