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In Search of St. Francis

All Saints, Catonsville, Maryland

It was springtime and my buddy Chris and I were on our bikes.

Unbeknownst to me, a lifelong pilgrimage into the world of St. Francis of Assisi was about to begin.

Hilton Avenue was a major thoroughfare in our neighborhood and its large Victorian homes sheltered some of Catonsville’s largest Catholic families. As you continued south, the neighborhood transitioned to more modest homes, and rather suddenly to undeveloped fields and forest.

On that beautiful day, we followed our normal route to Mr. Morsberger's Stables where three chestnut thoroughbreds were grazing in the field. But instead of stopping to pull grass and feed the horses, we continued on, past the entrance to Patapsco State Park, past St. Gabriel’s School, and all the way up to the stone gates with the engraved tablet: All Saints Convent.

We had never been this far before.

But like the two curious little boys that we were, after a brief consultation, we mounted our trusty metal steeds and continued through the gates.

My memory of that day is very green, with beautiful daffodils, dogwood blossoms, and tulips lining the long, circular path that bordered the fieldstone and Tudor-style buildings. The one in the center was obviously a chapel, the others, dormitories, and offices. I remember rounding the turn at the far end of the path and seeing our first nun. She was kneeling and dressed in a brilliant white habit. We initially thought she was praying but as we rode closer, we realized that she was weeding one of the flower beds. Dirty work for someone dressed in white, but she was angelically spotless to our eyes.

We waved and said hello as we rode by.

She looked up from her task, smiled, but said nothing.

Two more sisters were sitting on a bench on the other side of the lane and as we passed, again we said an even louder hello, but got no reaction.

As we passed back through the stone gate, we came to the same adolescent-boy-conclusion at approximately the same time.

“They’re deaf”

It was only over dinner that night that our parents filled us in on the concept of a cloistered religious order and their silent hours. That was way cooler than our initial conclusion and I remember being instantly fascinated by the concept of a vocation of prayer.

Like a magnet, that place drew us back time and again and my lifelong interest in the All Saints Order grew.

The Order was founded in 19th Century England by Harriett Brownlow Byron, who turned away from wealth and privilege and “left the world” on St. Luke’s Day in 1851. She dedicated her life to Christ and the poor, specifically to homeless children and tuberculin women.

Her work became well known in the Anglican world and in 1872, the rector of Mount Calvary Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland asked the order to send three women as missionaries to begin an extension in the United States. Upon their arrival, with funding from Mount Calvary and the Diocese, they opened a convent in Baltimore. In 1917 they expanded to Catonsville and built their hamlet on Hilton Avenue. Their work with children and the poor has continued unabated for over 150 years.

Even at a young age I recognized the peaceful transition you would feel as you passed through the gate and entered the silent world of All Saints. In the hottest days of summer, the canopy of old oaks, cedars, and ornamental pines would lower the heat and raise your spirits. We were sometimes greeted by the sound of prayer and choral song. On some visits we took the opportunity to feed a handful of grass to the old white mare that had become the sister’s four-legged lawn mower. My mom would drive there to buy holiday and note cards designed and printed by the nuns, and as adults, our Episcopal parish would go for silent retreats with the sisters.

The All Saints vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience link them like a cincture through time to the ministry of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis was the 12th century Italian mystic and Catholic friar who founded the Franciscans. He was the first to construct these three pillars of the covenant shared by Christian religious orders. The rope that girds the waist of his brothers to this day has three knots as a visible reminder of those vows.

Francis was the model for Harriet Brownlow Byron and all who would turn their backs on wealth and privilege to take up the Cross and preach penance in the sinful world. Even her imagery of “leaving the world” was a direct quote from Francis. As St. Paul instructed the followers in 2 Corinthians 6:10, “as having nothing, but possessing everything” we are called to turn our back on our material possessions and face a sinful world that needs our help.

All I really knew about St. Francis in my youth was that he was the guy holding the bird bath. Not much more sophisticated than that. As a non-Catholic, the saints that had been recognized by all faiths were the ones I knew the best, and Francis was at the top of that list.

Shrine of St. Anthony, Franciscan Friars, Ellicott City, Maryland

When Hayden and I moved to Howard County, Maryland in 1976, I attended classes conducted by Father John Paul “Jack” Carter (William and Mary '44) and was confirmed in the Episcopal Church at St. John’s Ellicott City. My interest in becoming a more committed Christian and my love for the intertwined history of the church and this Country made it a natural fit for me. Our Anglo-Catholic liturgy and traditions take me back to my first experiences at All Saints, eavesdropping on the sung Mass.

Beginning our last decade in Maryland, Hayden and I bought a 5-acre parcel of land on Triadelphia Road in Ellicott City to design and build a house. The wooded lot was on the western perimeter of what had been the estate of Charles Carroll of Carrolton, Maryland signer of the Declaration of Independence and the only Catholic to do so.

A stone’s throw from our new home was a 238-acre tract of the original estate now owned by the Franciscan Friars. They had purchased the Carrollton Hall manor house and the land in 1928, but soon outgrew the space and asked one of the friars, an architect, Fr. Benedict Przemielewski to design a new novitiate. He chose to miniature the Sacro Convento, the original Franciscan Friary built in Assisi, Italy in the 13th Century. Sacred ground, it holds the tomb of St. Francis.

The Maryland building was constructed of local granite faced with Beaver Dam marble and sited on a hill looking down on a plain, much like the original site in Assisi. Completed in 1931, it is a stunning piece of architecture.

Like All Saints Convent before it, this center of religious life drew me in.

On a drive to explore our new neighborhood, I came across the Friary by accident. I saw a modest brown sign with an arrow pointing in the direction of the Shrine of St. Anthony, Franciscan Friars. When I reached the gates, I felt the same adolescent curiosity to check it out.

I remember driving up the long approach and being struck by the beauty of the property and the solitude of the site. There was virtually no sign of another human being on the grounds and only a few cars adjacent to some of the associated granite buildings. The novitiate itself shone brightly at the top of the hill and to find a piece of architecture like this in the rural countryside of Howard County was stunning.

I don’t recall getting out of the car on that first drive through the property, but I would come to know the Shrine of St. Anthony well during my ten years in the neighborhood.

St. Anthony was born in 1195 in Lisbon, Portugal. His baptismal name was Ferdinand and like St. Francis, he was born into wealth and high social status. He entered the priesthood and served throughout his home country. Inspired by the martyrdom in Morocco of a group of Franciscans that he had come to know, he approached his superiors for permission to join the order of St. Francis. With permission granted he took the name Anthony as a symbol of his new life of poverty and service.

The Shrine was a wonderful venue for retreats and our parish of St. John’s Ellicott City used it frequently for that purpose. The beautiful courtyard, chapel, and conference rooms became familiar places of reflection, worship, and planning for my colleagues and me. We even took meals with the friars in the refectory on more than one occasion, a wonderful opportunity to get to know these fellow Christians on a more personal basis.

One experience stands above all others.

It was on Saturday, April 2, 2005. We were having a Vestry Retreat at St. Anthony’s Shrine and after dinner had returned to the conference room for our evening meeting and Compline. Through an open door that led to the courtyard we saw candlelight and a procession of Friars walking slowly in a single file. They each held a flickering candle and chanted what I later learned was the Requiem Aeternam (Eternal Rest). They eventually formed a circle.

Pope John Paul II (later canonized to become Pope St. John Paul II) had died in the Vatican at 3:37 PM EST, but in our “America Online world”, news traveled slowly. It didn’t immediately dawn on me what was happening, but we quickly suspended our proceedings and became silent observers of this tearful remembrance. Though I didn’t feel that close to the persona of the Pope, you couldn’t help feeling empathy for these brown-robed Franciscan Friars, whose emotional response to the loss of the Pontiff filled the night air.

Basilica of San Francesco, Assisi, Italy

So, 63 years after driving through the gates of All Saints, and 18 years after a poignant night of silent observation at St. Anthony’s Shrine, we were planning for some travel in Italy. Our daughter, Brittany, was to be married in Tuscany and we were looking forward to some post-wedding retreat time to relax and enjoy a more solitary experience. My cousin, who along with his wife were to be our travelling companions, suggested Assisi, and we immediately embraced the idea. None of us had much experience in Umbria and Assisi sounded like a very special destination.

After the wedding, (which I’d love to talk about, but catch me later), we travelled by private car from Poppi, Tuscany into the Umbria region. In the simplest terms, Tuscany’s history is silk, wealth, and the Renaissance, Umbria’s is grit, poverty, and agriculture. Tuscany belonged to the Medici’s and Umbria to the Franciscans.

When the bubonic plague devastated Umbria in the 14th century, both Perugia and Assisi were particularly hard hit, but the government and the economy of Perugia brought that city back to life. Assisi, on the other hand, remained frozen in time, largely dependent on the Catholic church and the pilgrims in search of the miracle sites, relics, and footprints of St. Francis. To this day, of the over 6 million annual visitors who walk the streets of Assisi, a large percentage are still pilgrims in search of the Saint. What they find is not only stunning art, architecture, and a layered civilization stretching back to and beyond the Romans, but a town visually frozen in the Middle Ages. Its narrow streets, walls, arches, and small store-front commerce carry you centuries into the past.

When our driver pulled into our hotel at the foot of the dramatic hill that suspends Assisi heavenward, the imposing Basilica of St. Francis and the Sacro Convento filled the sky above us. It took our breath away. For the next five days, it would be our companion day and night, its massive bells peeling the call to worship, and its springtime squadron of swallows darting through the sky above the olive grove at its base.

As I gazed up at the arches that dominate the façade of the Sacro Convento, I pictured the mirror image that was St. Anthony’s Shrine back in Ellicott City and it warmed my heart. The continuity of this centuries old profile tied words and theology to stone and replicated its message.

The next day I was taken by surprise by the depth of emotion that I felt as I walked down the narrow steps to the chapel that holds the tomb of St. Francis. Uncovered in 1818 and fully documented as truly his earthly remains, it is contained in a plain stone box, and is candle-illuminated beyond a black iron grate. The silence, the kneeling pilgrims, the dim light, and the intimacy of the space combined to make this a moment that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Watching the number of pilgrims around me who were neither genuflecting nor making the sign of the cross, I was reminded that St. Francis is that saint who belongs to all Christians, and even some of other faiths. His association with all living creatures and his famous sermon to the birds has made him a sympathetic soul to most everyone.

In the upper cathedral built one hundred years after the lower nave, you are surrounded by Giotto’s frescoes of the life of St. Francis. Giotto di Bondone, an Italian painter, and architect from Florence was commissioned to tell the story of this revered mystic and preacher of Assisi. Originally a pictograph vehicle to tell the story to Italians who could neither read nor write, today it serves as a universal interpreter to level the barrier of language for pilgrims from all over the world.

The image of St. Francis is everywhere you look in the town, from the frescoes to every imaginable souvenir construct that the human mind can imagine; salt and pepper shakers to bobble heads, and from sandals key chains to every color, shape, and style of Catholic prayer beads. This billion dollar inventory of kitsch lies in stark contrast to the life of a man who literally gave his fine clothes back to his father when he took up a life of poverty. He built a centuries-old, worldwide movement but would never accept cash alms; only building materials to repair his churches or food to feed his friars.

But like everything else in life, it is a matter of focus.

Yes, the souvenir dollars could be put to better use. The money that was used to build this magnificent basilica could have been used to feed the poor, but how many lives have been inspired by walking through its gates? How many people have come to Assisi and felt a connection through their lives to this simple, little man who stood all of 5 feet 4 inches tall? How many have had a renewal of their faith through this pilgrimage? How many have been touched by his example of good works or been inspired by his words? How many have gone into the world and continued on the path mapped by St. Francis of Assisi?

I leave you with his words.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve him with great humility.

Excerpt from Canticle of the Sun, St. Francis of Assisi, San Damiano, 1224


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