Francis Solano was a Franciscan Friar hailed as a saint both in Spain, where he first labored, and in Peru, where he spent the last two decades of his life.
A native of Andalusia, Francisco joined the Observantine Franciscans in 1589. Once ordained a priest, he devoted half his time to prayer and half to preaching. Though his sermons were not ornamental, they were very effective in converting souls.
Appointed master of the Andalusian Franciscan novices, he made a practice, whenever the novices were found at fault, of imposing penance not on them but on himself. If they had failed, he explained, it was he, their director, who was to blame. In 1583, the dread plague struck hard at Granada. Fray Francisco devoted his attention heroically to the stricken; indeed, he himself fell victim to the epidemic, although he recovered.
After his recovery, St. Francis asked to be sent to the African mission. His request was turned down; but in 1589, when King Philip II commanded that more Spanish friars be sent to Latin America, Francis was missioned to Peru.
The trip to Peru was a real adventure. The missionary party landed at Panama, crossed the isthmus, and on the Pacific side took another ship to Peru. When nearing Peru, the vessel ran into a bad storm that drove it into a sandbank, and violent waves threatened to break it up. Father Francis had been instructing some black passengers during the journey, but had not yet baptized them. For this reason, while the rest abandoned ship, he chose to remain with his pupils. He gave them a final instruction and baptized them. Soon afterward, the craft split into two. Some of the newly baptized blacks were drowned. After three days, Francisco and the others were rescued and taken to Lima.
Once arrived at Lima, St. Francis was assigned to northern Paraguay, entailing a most difficult journey across the continent. There he learned the Indian languages. Eventually he was named superior of Franciscan missions in the area. He made numerous converts among the natives.
When his term in Paraguay was up, the missionary was named guardian (superior) of the friary in Lima. At Lima his chief concern was for the Spaniards. He denounced their corruption as meriting divine punishment like the city of Nineveh of old. The audience, aware of Francis’ prophetic gifts, became so frightened that a panic threatened. The saint was constrained by the archbishop, St. Toribio, to explain that he had meant the spiritual, not the physical destruction of Lima in his sermon.
St. Francis Solano is also said to have had the gift of tongues, and for the miracles attributed to him he was called the “Wonder-worker of the New World”. The preacher of his funeral sermon declared that God had chosen this friar to be “the hope and edification of all Peru, the example and glory of Lima, the splendor of the Seraphic (Franciscan) order.”
One of the saint’s gracious devotional practices was to take his lute or guitar to chapel or church and play and sing hymns in honor of Our Lady. Especially at Christmas time he would gather the Indians to sing with him before the Christmas crib. Between songs he would pause to explain the Christmas story.
Francis Solano died on July 14, 1610, and was canonized in 1727. Especially popular among the Spanish Franciscans who worked in the Americas, St. Francis’ name was given to the latest (1830) of the 21 missions they established in California in the 18th and 19th centuries. You can still visit its mission church today.
–Father Robert F. McNamara