St. Francis’ Church
St. Francis’ Church (Chiesa di San Francesco) and particularly its crypt, which is the old Church of the Holy Cross, double as the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross’ headquarters: it belongs to the Forcamelone district - or, as they say in Leonessa, Sesto - where all foreigners coming to live in Leonessa are traditionally registered to. The current church was built on top of the old one, which can be visited by contacting the Brotherhood’s Prior. Every year, it is here that the Good Friday procession begins.
In the old church many frescoes are still visible; among them is a representation of Heaven and Hell. In the section dedicated to Hell, a special place is reserved to the Town Traitor, the corrupt municipal administrator who has stolen from its people and now burns for eternity. Notice also that in the Kingdom of Heaven, among the saints of the mendicant orders (Saints Clare, Francis and Anthony) some people of letters can be seen as well, such as poet Dante Alighieri, who was a secular member of the Third Order of Saint Francis.
The Brotherhood of the Holy Cross (Confraternita della Santa Croce) already existed as early as 1363 and was originally confined to the old church of the same name. The frescoes, dating back to the period between 1370 and 1420 AD, also include the brotherhood’s blason (a red cross with nails and whips standing over three mountains) and brothers who flagellate themselves and pray. Next to the church was the brotherhood’s oratory, where the brotherhood’s rituals were carried out, such as listening to the Word of God, the Flagellation and the Adoration of the Crucifix. In 1399 the passage of the White Penitents or ‘Bianchi’, on their way to Rome for the Jubilee of 1400, gave new life to the brotherhood, which fused together with another one from a different neighbourhood.
The original church and oratory soon became too small for the increasing number of brothers. As a consequence, in 1501 a new oratory was built next to the Chapel of the Crib in St. Francis Church; this allowed the chapel to be used as the brotherhood’s church. At this point, the Church of the Holy Cross and the old oratory were given other functions: an area was employed by the Monte Frumentario, an institution who helped the poor in need, to store wheat; another served as a burial ground up until Napoleon’s Burial Regulations (known in French as the ‘Décret Impérial sur les sépultures’).
The decree, issued on 12th June 1804, ordered that graves could only be situated outside the city walls, in sunny and ventilated locations, and that they had to be all the same in order to avoid discriminations among the dead. In 1469 some Conventual Franciscans founded the first mount of piety (Blessed Dominic of Leonessa) and the brotherhood was soon involved in it. After 1500 the Conventual Franciscans also founded the aforementioned Monte Frumentario, which was later entrusted to the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross; this Monte Frumentario operated until mid-19th century. Over the years, more and more brothers joined the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross, even noble and wealthy families of several districts of Leonessa.
From the Church of the Holy Cross, the brotherhood eventually moved to St. Francis’ Church and it started to take care of the sick and the poor (many at the time) by founding a free hospital. The hospital remained in use until mid-19th century as well and it is still visible, as it faced St. Francis’ Church, between Via G. Battista and the parish house in Via Mastrozzi. On the façade in Via Mastrozzi you can still see the brotherhood’s blazon, sculpted in local stone.
Around mid-15th century the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross also helped the Conventual Franciscans make a dream of theirs come true: setting up a huge nativity scene thanks to the funding of wealthy families registered with the brotherhood. The crib still exists and has all of its original figurines, as the brotherhood and Leonessa’s women decided against it going to the Venice Biennale in 1943. In 1746 the brotherhood financed the renovation of the Blessed Crucifix’s Chapel, appointing great architect Giuseppe Viscardi from Rieti for the job. In 1803, after the Napoleonic laws abolished convents, St. Francis’ Church was going to become state property and be shut for worship. However, the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross helped restore it: the Kingdom of Naples authorized for the church to be reopened and allowed the brotherhood to be in charge of its upkeep; in fact, the brotherhood replaced the previous Conventual Franciscans. In 1808 the brotherhood had to intervene again in order to save St. Francis’ Church from being destroyed: as the roof was crumbling and therefore dangerous, the Ministry of Worship of the Kingdom of Naples did not have enough funds for its restoration; however, the brotherhood itself managed to fix and reopen it.
Like every brotherhood, the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross has been instrumental in the spread of literature, both Latin and Vernacular (ancestor of modern Italian). Only some of the brothers knew how to read and write, but the readings that the Priors and Masters of Ceremonies did during the brotherhood’s meetings and the Holy Week have helped illiterates learn Latin and Vernacular texts, thus doing both religious and social work. This is why the Conventual Franciscans completely trusted the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross. Many of the brotherhood’s traditions also come from the Conventual Franciscans. Some examples are: the ‘CORDA PIA’, still celebrated in the Chapel of the Holy Cross inside St. Francis’ Church every Friday in March, in memory of Jesus’ Passion and Death; the ‘Canto (= song) dell’Ufficio’ during the Holy Week; and the centuries-old Good Friday procession.
Text adapted and translated from: http://www.leonessa.org/confraternite/santacroce/Documenti/chi_siamo.htm