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Finding the Porziuncola

December 17, 2014


Like many Catholics, I grew up enthralled by the story of Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment. Francis and I both shared a profound love for God’s creatures, and one of my childhood treasures was a book showing a fresco of Saint Francis preaching to birds. One of the details in St. Francis lore capturing my attention was the Porziuncola, a small chapel that had fallen into disrepair in Francis’ day.


The name Porziuncola means “small portion of land.” It’s well-known that Francis came from a wealthy family only to turn his back on riches and luxury to focus on the poor. He was living in rags near this chapel outside the city walls when God spoke to him, telling him to repair his church. At first, Francis took this message literally; he labored to restore this tiny chapel. It wasn’t until later that he came to believe God was tasking him with repairing the corrupt Catholic Church.


Francis felt a strong connection with this tiny building; it was here that he dedicated to God another future saint, Clare of Assisi. After receiving the Pope’s permission, Francis founded his order in the shadow of this humble structure, and it was here he asked to be brought when he lay dying.


There are many stories related to Saint Francis and the Porziuncola, and I was inspired to find this modest chapel during a visit to Assisi several years ago. Assisi is a wonderful place that time has left untouched. Birds still sing in olive trees clinging to nearby hillsides, and it would be easy to believe you’d passed through a portal to the eleventh century were it not for the religious tchotchkes on sale everywhere, and the massive basilica dedicated to this patron saint of Italy.


The basilica was started in 1228, two years after Francis died at the age of forty-four. It is a magnificent structure, filled with frescos attributed to Giotto and other masters of the early Renaissance. The fresco mesmerizing me as a kid showing Francis preaching to the birds is just inside the entrance. As I passed beneath the vaulted ceiling reminiscent of Imperial Rome, I couldn’t help wondering what had happened to Francis’ humble chapel, the one he’d repaired with his own hands.




The Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi


We were led downstairs to a vault where the Saint’s bones were preserved, and I speculated on what the simple man would have thought about all this fuss. We finished exploring the basilica and I prowled the grounds looking for the stone chapel. It was nowhere to be found. I was disappointed when we piled back into our bus without having seen it. On our ride back to Florence we paused at the edge of Assisi at yet another massive building. Our guide called it the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (Saint Mary of the Angels)constructed between 1569-1679. Frankly, my feet were sore and I wasn’t in the mood for another ornate Italian church. But I climbed out of the bus and shuffled inside.




 Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli


There it was—the Porziuncola, embellished with generations of artwork andenshrined beneath a spectacular baroque dome. I sat on a pew and stared at it for a while. The Church had preserved Francis’ chapel like a ship in a bottle. I was pleased to see that the structure was so well cared for, but I was also disturbed by what I saw; the stones the Saint had stacked with his own hands would never again feel the warmth of the sun. The birds so cherished by Francis would never again perch on its roof. A cleansing rain would never again wash over what had once been a pastoral site. St. Francis might be patron saint of the environment, but that environment would never again touch his beloved Porziuncola.











Among all the tributes dedicated to this servant of the poor, I was most pleased to have laid my eyes on the Porziuncola, even though I had little doubt Francis would have been appalled by what they’d done to his little chapel. 







25 Comments's a chapel. I thought you were talking about lunchmeat. A chapel's cool. But, what am I going to do with this sandwich?
By: Al Penwasser on December 17, 2014
THank you for your observations on this chapel. I would never have ever heard of it had it not been for you wonderful story.
By: Oma Linda on December 17, 2014
wow. neat that you 'stumbled onto' it. but as you said, sad it was encapsulated from the nature he loved.
By: TexWisGirl on December 17, 2014
I think this would have made St. Francis sad!!
By: fishducky on December 17, 2014
Interesting perspective, but at least it has been preserved. I have often wanted to use this word, but never could find the spelling "tchotchkes" Thank you for that.
By: Cranky on December 17, 2014
It is poignant that his chapel is kept "under glass" - it seems to contradict his life in some manner. On the other hand, would it still exist if exposed to the elements? I think I'd rather see the ruins, than this fancy structure...
By: The Bug on December 17, 2014
This was one of my favorite stories of St. Francis, too, that he was willing to repair the physical structure of a church and tackle the powers-that-be in that same church and try to repair them, too.
By: mimi on December 17, 2014
What a beautiful post. Thank you. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on December 17, 2014
You revealed the gem within. A well told story and a memorable experience no less. Grazie
By: Daniel LaFrance on December 17, 2014
at the ripe old age of 15 I was in Assisi but do not remember this chapel inside a cathedral...I would have loved to seen it altho I feel the same way you do- what a shame the little building isn't outside for the birds and animals to sit and rest by it. Thanks for sharing this touching experience.
By: Kathe W. on December 17, 2014
History and religion. You've given an interesting account.
By: red on December 17, 2014
Wow! I learn something every other day!
By: Val on December 17, 2014
Because of my love for nature, I have always been most interested in St. Francis. Thank you for this.
By: Hilary on December 17, 2014
St Francis may have been appalled but perhaps the throngs of people who have been able to see his church in such fine condition are pleased. It is beautiful.
By: Akansas Patti on December 17, 2014
What a "find!"
By: Tom Sightings on December 17, 2014
Very nice indeed, aren't you happy that you decided to make this last visit rather than stay on the bus, it would have been a shame for you to have missed this one.
By: Jimmy on December 17, 2014
Now this is something I would love to see- thanks for sharing- it is beautiful
By: Coloring Outside the Lines on December 17, 2014
A great, humble man. You are so right he would be appalled.
By: John on December 18, 2014
I find most of the great cathedrals around the world absolutely mesmerizing.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on December 18, 2014
Huh. A man who believed in animals and the outdoors, and his chapel will receive neither. Huh... Sad. Cat
By: Cat on December 18, 2014
Well, at least it has been preserved but you're right, it's sad, too. Glad you got to see it.
By: Madeleine McLaughlin on December 18, 2014
Sounds like another wonderful experience. What an interesting, yet sad story about the chapel.
By: LL Cool Joe on December 18, 2014
Interesting about St. Francis...wonder if that is why the current pope picked this name. And very interesting about the tiny chapel being inside a big cathedral!
By: Pixel Peeper on December 18, 2014
Stephen: This is your finest post. It is rich and fascinating with an ending that caught me by surprise. I would have to agree with you!
By: Michael Manning on December 18, 2014
Those are amazing pictures! It sure seems to be exactly what Frances didn't want though. And there's still a lot of corruption in the church even after so many centuries...
By: Lexa Cain on December 19, 2014

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