In a Rome noted for its saints, Francesca Romana remains one of the most popular. Perhaps it is because although she founded a religious order, she was also a model wife and mother.
Frances was the daughter of Paul Busso, a wealthy Roman nobleman. Paul was a devout man and a good father, yet when his daughter, at the age of 11, asked his permission to become a nun, he sternly refused. After she reached 13, he arranged for her to marry Lorenzo Ponziano, a worthy young man of the same social class. At first, the little Signora Ponziano felt very lonely. Then she found that Vannozza, the wife of her husband’s brother, had also wanted to take the veil. Because of this common disappointment the two sisters-in-law became inveterate companions. Both decided to follow a sort of monastic rule; each became active in works of mercy toward the poor and the sick. Fortunately, their husbands admired them for their devotion and placed no obstacle in their way.
When her mother-in-law died, her father-in-law chose Francesca to be head of the household. She proved to be a very competent manager. Frances also bore her husband two sons, Battista and Evangelista, and a daughter, Agnes. She was very devoted to Lorenzo. Whenever he called her, she even broke off her prayers to attend to him. As she said, “It is most laudable in a married women to be devout, but she must never forget that she is a housewife.” Devotion to her spouse was to entail much suffering. The first decade of the 1400s was one of great hardship in Rome. Civil wars brought about famine and pestilence. Francesca and Vannozza did their best to take care of the sick and hungry. When their family supplies ran out, Frances sold her jewels to procure further provisions. After that, also, she herself dressed in the plainest of garb.
These were also the days of the Great Western Schism, in which there were two, then three claimants to the papacy. Lorenzo suffered for his allegiance to the Roman pope. Count Troja, a partisan of the antipope, forced him to flee his home; then he destroyed his properties and slew his peasants.
Francesca, Evangelista, Agnes and Vannozza had to live in a corner of their ruined Roman house, but they still continued their good works. Only after the Great Schism was healed, were the lands of the Ponziani restored. The saint’s son Evangelista died not long afterward. A year later, while she was praying, he appeared to her accompanied by an archangel. He announced that her teen-aged daughter Agnes was about to die, but that by way of consolation, the angel would remain at Francesca’s side ever after. So indeed the angel did, in the form of an eight-year-old boy, but visible to Frances alone.
Lorenzo picked a beautiful young woman named Mobilia as a wife for Battista, his remaining son. At first Mobilia despised her mother-in-law. But when she was stricken with illness and Signora Francesca had nursed her tenderly back to health, Mobilia’s contempt turned to true love. Francesca was like that: to know her was to love her. Sometime before his death, her husband released her from all marriage obligations towards him, on the condition that she continue to live under his roof. By that time, her reputation had spread all over Rome, and people came from every part of the city to beg her to heal the sick and arbitrate their quarrels.
Frances now fulfilled a long-considered project: she founded a society of women who took no vows, but simply offered their services to serve the poor. They came to be known, from their residence, as the Oblates of Tor de’ Specchi; they still carry on their work. After her husband died, Francesca went to live with them, and they elected her superior, despite her protests. Her life of mystic prayer became even more intense thereafter.
Francesca Ponziano died on March 9, 1440. Her last words were, “The angel has finished his task; he bids me to follow him.”
May we imitate St. Frances in heeding and being grateful to our own guardian angels!
–Father Robert F. McNamara