Frances of Rome, patron of Benedictine Oblates

On March 9, the Church and the Benedictine world commemorated the passing of Frances of Rome in 1440, the patron of Benedictine Oblates. Little is known about her and one reason is that she did not leave any writings under her name. Most of the information we have is from the proceedings for her canonization in 1608.

Frances was born in 1384 into a noble family of Rome. She was married at the age 12 and lived with her husband’s family. In time she took over the administration of the household and had three children, 2 boys and one girl.

As a young woman, Frances tried to combine her domestic responsibilities with those of motherhood, service to the poor of Rome, and her spiritual life. In time it all became too much for her and she had a breakdown. By the time she recovered, about a year later, she had learned how to interweave and balance the three major threads of her life: her family life, her life of service to the community and her spiritual life. As the years passed, she worked tireless for the people of Rome during the plague, wars and other calamnities, as well as caring for her husband, children and the needs of the household.

According to Susan Anderson Kerr who wrote the chapter on Frances in the book Benedict in the World: Portraits of Benedictine Oblates, “the monastic orders, both the Augustinians and the Benedictines, were in decline. Many lay people joined the confraternities which had formed to worship God, banding together for support during the civic unrest and famine, engaging in penitential practices, processions, meeting frequently to sing songs of praise.”

Many women who knew Frances and were attracted to her way of serving the poor asked her to give formal expression to their way of life. They also felt attracted to Benedictine spirituality which they learned about through knowing the Olivatan monks in Rome. Frances and several other women became Benedictine Oblates. At first they continued living in their homes but eventually they found a house where could gather and live in community. Frances herself stayed with her husband until his death.

Again Susan Anderson Kerr: “In founding this group of oblates, Frances created a hybrid. She transformed the medieval practice of bringing child oblates to monasteries, by combining features of this practice with the new lay spiritual path of tertiaries which had arisen in the high Middle Ages. What Frances created was the union of lay with Benedictine spirituality, grafting lives of laity called to this vocation onto the Benedictine vine.” However, Frances’ foundation did not in time become a prototype and so was not reproduced anywhere.

Many of our own oblates here at St. Benedict’s Monastery can surely identify with aspects of Frances of Rome’s life and are inspired by her example.