The places of St. Francis
A lot has changed since the beginning of the 13th century, when St. Francis of Assisi, born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, came from his birthplace to the land that, thanks to him, would be later known as the ‘Holy Valley’. The incomparable nature and landscapes of this region, however, have remained almost unchanged, with the mountains, hills, waters and woods that have always characterised it.
Going from Umbria to Latium, once you have passed the Marmore’s Falls, you will reach lakes Ventina, Lungo and Ripasottile, remains of the old Lacus Velinus that the saint crossed by boat in order to get to Rieti’s Plain, when the only tiny harbour in the area belonged to the Lords of Labro. Amidst the lush woods around Rivodutri, overlooking the valley from the Terminillo massif is St. Francis’ beech tree, near a small church dedicated to the saint. According to legend, this monumental centuries-old tree sheltered St. Francis during a storm, miraculously bending its branches like an umbrella.
Moreover, a stop at the four franciscan sanctuaries is mandatory: Poggio Bustone, where the saint received forgiveness for the sins committed in his youth; La Foresta, where he performed the miracle of the wine and composed part of The Canticle of the Creatures; Fontecolombo, where he wrote the Rule of the Franciscan Order; and Greccio, next to the hermitage where lived at the time, where he set up the first nativity scene. They are four little jems set among the mountains and encircled by woods and silence, as well as places of great peace and mysticism.
On the contrary, it was in the Papal Palace in Rieti, in front of which is a monument to the saint and to the four sanctuaries, that St. Francis experienced the miracle of the cithara, whereas next to the old oratory of the Santa Croce hospital, over which St. Francis’ Church was later erected, the saint gave his cloak to a blind woman. St. Francis stayed in Rieti for a long period of time in order to find a cure for his eye disease as well as the support of the Roman Curia, in Rieti at the time, for the establishment of his Order.
The saint is highly worshipped in the entire province, as proven by the abundance of churches dedicated to him. One that stands out is the Votive Temple in Pian de’ Valli on Mount Terminillo, where part of his ashes are preserved. In addition to that, there are two beautiful former franciscan convents: the one in Labro is now a hotel and convention centre, whereas the one of Sant’Antonio al Monte in Rieti acts now as an oasis of peace and relax.
The province is also the birthplace of two important franciscan saints: St. Felix of Cantalice, the first Capuchin friar to be named a saint, and St. Joseph of Leonessa, another Capuchin friar; they both have churches and sanctuaries dedicated to them in their respective hometowns, built in strategic locations or on the site of old miracles. Blessed Dominic of Leonessa, a franciscan friar, was also born in the town of the same name; according to an engraving found in the basement of the convent of St. Francis, there was a Mount of Piety here before 1446, and it is therefore possible that Dominic drew inspiration from it when founding in 1458 what is generally regarded as the first Mount of Piety, in Ascoli Piceno.
When visiting the Holy Valley, do not miss to stop at three other sites of great historical and religious value: Terria Castle, with its frescoed ceilings, ghosts stories and a chapel dedicated to saints Francis and Dominic; the impressing San Pastore Abbey, in a wonderful location with mountains at its back; and the mystical St. Michael’s Cave in Morro Reatino, as the archangel was particularly dear to St. Francis.