History of the Franciscans of the Immaculate
The Inspiration That Started It All
The Family of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, Friars, Sisters, Poor Clares, and the Third Order members known as the MIM (the Mission of the Immaculate Mediatrix), was founded by two holy Italian priests: Fr. Stefano Maria Manelli and Fr. Gabriele Maria Pellettieri. It was the Immaculate who willed the existence of this religious family and chose these two holy friar priests to be its initiators.
Our Holy Prophets
Terrain, roots, fruit
The Family of the Franciscans of the Immaculate is made up of friars and sisters. But who willed that this “family” exist? Where did it come from? What are its beginnings?
A family of consecrated souls is not born inadvertently, by chance, but by the loving disposition of divine Providence.
Indeed the Immaculate willed the existence of this “family” and chose two friar priests to be its ‘initiators’: Fr. Stefano Maria Manelli and Fr. Gabriele Maria Pellettieri.
Both of these friars received their Franciscan and Marian formation among the Order of Friars Minor, Conventual, in the school of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe, masters and models of incomparable greatness. Moreover, Fr. Stefano Maria Manelli was a spiritual son of St. Pio of Pietrelcina, the Franciscan saint made ‘giant’.
Together the two Fathers began living out their experience of the Rule of St. Francis and the Marian Traccia, or pathway, on August 2nd, 1970, in the Casa Mariana, or Marian House “Mary Most Holy of Good Counsel” at Frigento, Italy. Twenty years after that, on August 2nd, 1990, they found themselves with this new religious Family of friars and sisters which had grown, so to speak, day by day without having planned or foreseen it; which had been led from ‘on high’ by an invisible but real hand, a very real hand: the motherly hand of the Immaculate.
A Council which knocks
Why did the two Founders initiate the experience of the Casa Mariana, or Marian House?
The response to this interrogation is very simple and beautiful: because the Ecumenical Council Vatican II shook them up and provoked them in a healthy way, impelling them not to be “forgetful hearers”, but “faithful executors” of the Word of life (Jm 1:25).
There is a decree of Vatican II which directly regards the need to renew “religious life” in its pristine purity and fresh fecundity. This decree is called Perfectae Charitatis. It is an admirable decree loaded with wisdom both ancient and new and capable of stirring up amazing revivals and uncommon enterprises in those who want to commit themselves to renewing religious life without half measures or compromises.
The decree is fundamentally based on the renewal of religious life by its “return to the sources”, sources to be relived today in the “changed conditions of the times”, in order to realize “a more exact observance of the rule and constitutions.”
The eyes and heart, the mind and will of the two founding friars were fixed upon these pivotal points. Through a long, personal meditation for a number of years there matured the request to be able to ‘put into practice’ (cf. Lk 11:28) what the Church norms expressed in the conciliar document. The Immaculate Mediatrix of every grace led them to this request which they sensed to be a duty laden with sacrifice and joy.
To obey the Church, to obey the Ecumenical Council: this is the duty of every child of the Church. It is the sole guarantee of fidelity. “He who obeys, buds forth,” to use a popular Italian expression. So it was for these two reserved and bashful friars who became, within two decades, a new Family of friars and sisters.
St. Francis and St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe
With Her delicate, motherly attention, the Immaculate led the two friars along the right pathways needed in order to obey the Church.
The Council had fixed two points as well-connected in time: the past and the present, to be fused together in a harmony of religious life both ancient and new. It is the present which must root itself in the past, so that there might be “new things and old,” as Jesus says (Mt. 13:52).
As such, we have to speak about St. Francis of Assisi and St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe. The Poverello of Assisi is found anew in St. Maximilian who is the “St. Francis of the 20th century”, as he has been defined by Pope John Paul II; and St. Maximilian, in his turn, is rooted in St. Francis as his “most exemplary disciple,” according to the happy expression of Pope Paul VI.
The Council asked for the “return to the sources.” So then, the “sources” of Franciscanism are St. Francis himself, the Rule, the “Franciscan Legends”, the life of the first communities of origin at St. Mary of the Angels, Poggio, Bostone, Fonte Colombo, Greccio, the Carceri…
The Church is asking the realization of these very “sources” today, in man’s present circumstances. In other words, the Church asks that these “sources” be inserted into the historical reality of our times. Banned, then, are the nostalgic memories and historical items which merely remain printed in books and conserved in the “museums” of Franciscanism. The Church is for a renewed and invigorating consecrated life which blossoms forth once again in beautiful works, even the most beautiful, and in the Saints who are ever more a cause for wonder and admiration.
II. In the Footsteps of the Prophets
The two friars, Fr. Stefano Maria and Fr. Gabriele Maria, found themselves following in the footsteps of St. Maximilian. With the grace of the Immaculate, they sought to make their own the Saint’s heritage in order to actualize an experience of Franciscan life renewed “in the light of the Immaculate”.
Here is the Franciscanism of St. Maximilian, his precious heritage, that responds in a perfect manner to the demands of the Church and to the norms of Vatican II: namely, to realize that Franciscan form of life from the “origins”, renewed in the apostolate, entirely penetrated, animated and vivified by “unlimited consecration” to the Immaculate.
One of the two friars also had the distinct privilege of being a spiritual son of Bl. Pio of Pietrelcina, guided by him from his infancy; and both of these religious men were assisted and counseled by the Servant of God, Don Dolindo Ruotolo, of Naples, an admirable priest for his holiness and doctrine.
They were in good hands, therefore, which kept them from erring while discerning and following the divine inspiration. This inspiration urged them to respond with generosity and audacity to the expectations of the Church which was dedicated to obtaining a “new Pentecost” of graces and gifts, of charisms and, above all else, of holiness.
From the year 1965 there began for them a lengthy rediscovery and meditation upon the Franciscan sources (the Omnibus – e.g. Celano, St. Bonaventure, the Legend of the Three Companions, etc., the Franciscan Saints – in particular St. Bonaventure, Bl. Angela of Foligno, St. Anthony, St. Bernardine, St. Peter of Alcantara, St. Veronica Giuliani) and upon the writings of St. Maximilian. And so it went… personal meditation, silent and profound, joyful and sorrowful… fruitful examinations and life changing resolutions which stirred up heavenly desires and aspirations ever more imperative and impelling.
Then, the permanence of one of the two friars in Assisi for about four months at the end of 1968 and the beginning of 1969 was most beneficial. In that time the friar was engaged in a most direct reflection upon the sources with attentive visits and meditations at the primitive, Franciscan “places”, so meaningful and “stinging”, from Rivotorto to St. Mary of the Angels, San Damiano, the Carceri, Poggio Bostone, Farneto, Fonte Colombo, the Forest, Monteluco, Alvernia, the Cells of Cortona… An incredible flowering of a “Franciscan legend” which could not remain just a mere “historical memory”, but which must be prolonged and renewed, flourishing once again in our day, in our historical setting, as the Church has desired with Vatican II.
…December 24th, 1969…
And the Immaculate was preparing the new beginning and the continuation of that “Franciscan legend”. The Immaculate Herself, within the secret of sublime graces and within the silence of the mustard seed which is prepared under the soil to grow and extend “great branches, so that the birds of the air may dwell under the shadow thereof” (Mk 4:32), was guiding all things with her invisible, yet sure and decisive hand.
On December 24th, 1969, Christmas Eve, Fr. Stefano Maria, encouraged and supported by his Father Provincial (the late Fr. Antonio Di Monda who died in the odor of sanctity), was writing a letter to the Most Reverend Father General of the Order, Fr. Basil Heiser. He was asking if this inspiration which was strongly impelling him to begin an experience of a renewed religious life according to the Franciscan “sources”, based upon the model of St. Maximilian, was a good one, one that should be approved and set into action.
In his response, Father General, with great benevolence, invited Fr. Stefano to prepare a program of this renewed life according to the inspiration which he had received from the Lord.
It was a response which asked for something fundamental. Everything would depend upon this “program of life”, in which would be present the Franciscan “origins” inserted into the present situation of the Church and history, and enriched by that exalted and sublime “Marian” dimension.
Fr. Stefano started this work, in prayer and fear, so as to respond to the request of Father General.
Prayer and penance, more than ever, accompanied the preparation of the program, called the Traccia mariana di vita francescana (The Marian plan, or more literally, pathway, of Franciscan life), written with his eyes fixed on the Immaculate, the Seraphic Father, St. Maximilian and the Supreme Pontiff, the highest and most secure guide of any renewal within the Church.
On April 21, 1970, Father General read and examined the Traccia, concluding with these words to Fr. Stefano: “There is much more here than what is contained in the Constitutions of the Order. However, if it is prohibited to do less than what is written in the Constitutions, it is never prohibited to do more. Therefore, go ahead!” And he entrusted the Traccia to Fr. Stefano with the exhortation to immediately find a companion in order to begin, in a suitable convent, the experience of a “Marian House” according to the form of Franciscan life written in the Traccia.
Fr. Stefano found a companion right away in Fr. Gabriele Maria Pellettieri who declared himself disposed and enthusiastic to start what seemed to him a “dream”.
The preferred location was the Friary and Sanctuary of Our Lady of Good Counsel at Frigento, Italy. It was a poor and shabby, solitary and mountainous place which was in a sad state of decay. The Church seemed to be just like… Bethlehem! And all this, on the one side, appeared to be truly astonishing to the two friars. The Marian Sanctuary was like Bethlehem: the very origins of the Gospel…
…August 2, 1970: St. Mary of the Angels!
It was on the Feast of St. Mary of the Angels, August 2, 1970, that the two friars, Fr. Stefano Maria and Fr. Gabriele Maria, arrived at that little plain which was located on the outskirts of Frigento, a village founded upon solid rock. They entered the poor friary which was made up of just five cells. It was Sunday. The sky was blue with large, billowing white clouds. The gentle mountain air refreshed the heat of the plain.
The first greeting was given to the Immaculate who received the friars into the little entrance of the then empty friary. The first visit was to the Sanctuary in order to sing with joy and emotion the Magnificat unto Her who had guided everything up to that day – August 2nd – extraordinarily beautiful because it was the Feast of Our Lady, with the joy of the Angels and the exultation of the Seraphic Father.
And so it was that the first Casa Mariana was born, small and poor, and thus all the more beautiful and grace-filled. “Every House of the Immaculate,” Fr. Stefano Maria says, “must be a St. Mary of the Angels where the Immaculate is Queen and the sisters are Her Angels.”
What a beautiful truth and sweet reality! And the two friars seemed to repeat the words of their Seraphic Father: “This I want, this I ask, this I long to do with all my heart!”
The day of August 2nd had been carefully chosen for a variety of reasons:
– because it was a day that recalled the “cradle”, that is, the “origins” of Franciscanism: and it was this that the Church was requesting;
– because it was a day that recalled the highest and most splendid “Marian character”: that of the Immaculate Queen of the Angels;
– because it was a day of innocence and abundant graces (the “Portiuncula Indulgence”) for every son of St. Francis and for every Christian.
Truly it would have been difficult to find a day more beautiful to initiate an experience such as this. It would mark the beginning of a most authentic renewal of Franciscanism “in the light of the Immaculate”: a renewal of religious life both for the two friars and for the whole Seraphic Order, as St. Maximilian was impelled to “dream”, all by way of the presence and omnipotent action of the Immaculate Mediatrix of all graces, and as such the sole worker of every renewal of grace.
Rising at four
The two friars were in their little hide-away devoted to watching and prayer, alone and recollected in the first “Marian House”. They were counting on their sweet Mother to guide them into the noble ways of contemplation and in the work of the apostolate. Their progress was gradual, but there was no wasting of time nor laziness.
Prayer and poverty, penance and works of the ministry characterized the hours of their day, which started at four in the morning and ended at night with the penance of the “discipline” before retiring.
A life worth reading about? Yes, indeed! The “Franciscan legend of the Immaculate” goes on to tell more. The two friars rested at night on bare planks of wood, without a matteress during the months which were less cold. They bore the bitter cold of the long winter months with temperatures often below freezing. They went about wearing sandals on bare feet in rain and snow. They kept their hair cut short — a mortification which cost not a little, especially at that time — something therefore readily shunned. They ate the plain fare which Providence sent. They bought nothing for their own sustenance, not even a bit of bread or milk. But what they needed always arrived by way of offerings. And if too much came in, they endeavored to give the surplus to persons more in need.
Yes, benefactors did not delay in appearing. By whom were they called? The first were good farmers of the neighborhood. They had learned that the friars ate only what came as charity and alms. One brought some home-made cottage cheese, another a bottle of oil, another a loaf of bread, while someone else offered a flask of wine, and others different sorts of vegetables, a young broiler, etc. Although this might seem poetic, it was an everyday reality.
The friars worked both in the friary and away from the friary, helping parish priests in the area. They became particularly involved in renovating and repairing the shrine. They were saddened at the dilapidated state of the House of God which had been damaged by an earthquake in 1962.
In this way the days and months passed, enriched by prayer and poverty, penance and toil. The Heart of the Immaculate was preparing the two friars in silence for something in the future.
Vocations, vocations, vocations…
The first great grace – and unexpected – was the vocations which came to the Casa Mariana. From 1971 onward, young men came asking to follow St. Francis according to the consecration to God and the Immaculate which these two friars were living out.
One, two, three, five youths arrived… Every year their novitiate was always animated by one or more novices. According to the rules, a postulancy, novitiate, and cleric program were erected by the major superiors and were not long in being filled up with young men – sent by whom? – these were men coming from all parts of Italy, from other regions of Europe, and from abroad (United States, Philippines).
This is noteworthy if one reflects that Frigento is a town lost in the mountains of Upper Irpinia far from centers of population, off the main highways, an unknown town holding out no particular attraction except the pure air of its nine hundred meter altitude.
And so, year after year the Seraphic habit was being worn by a swelling group of young men at the Casa Mariana; young men who committed themselves to live the Franciscan Rule, the Constitutions, and the Marian Traccia, with a dedication characteristic of youths seeking a community in which the “origins” of Franciscanism would be restored and the “wellsprings” of the Seraphic life would flow “with renewed vigor and freshness,” according to Pope Paul VI’s prophetic wish for all religious (Evangelica testificatio, 51).
More remarkable was the fact that these arrivals of new men at the Casa Mariana came precisely when all knew of the sad vocation crisis going on elsewhere among religious Institutes, forcing apostolic projects to stop and religious houses, churches, and missions to close for lack of religious.
According to Her plans, the Immaculate carried ahead this new “Franciscan legend” of the Twentieth Century, mysteriously calling young men, drawing them to this community where friars prayed together five hours a day, did penance, toiled, studied, fasted, bore the cold, took the discipline nearly every night, renounced vacations and comforts, wore sandals on bare feet, had their hair cut short, did without the entertainment of radio and TV, and forsook the luxury of smokes and sports. Thus they spend their lives poor and happy, multiplying in number as a “thing specially owned by the Immaculate.”
This is the true “Franciscan legend of the Immaculate!”
The Mustard Seed…
It could also be said that the two friars who began this experiment were like two grains of wheat sown in that cold mountainous region of Alta Irpinia. With their life “hidden with Christ in God”(Col. 3:3), they remained unknown and isolated from a world which was lost in the worship of its idols: sex, money, power, success, and amusement.
And what about the missionary venture of the four friars from the Casa Mariana who, on August 24th, 1979, departed for the distant Philippine Islands? There, too, vocations and good works flourished and the Institute of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate was born. The Franciscan legend of the Immaculate was spreading far and wide, from the continent of Europe to the continent of Asia, growing in beauty and significance.
The Casa Mariana has grown by grace, always sure of God’s blessing, because it was inserted in the living fabric of the Order and of the Church, as an avant-garde experience and a milestone in the field of the renewal of religious life. Today, there are close to 500 Friars as well as about 500 Sisters worldwide, spread all over the 5 continents. May the Immaculate continue to increase their number with holy vocations, souls who desire to generously give themselves to Jesus through Mary for the quickest, easiest and most sure path of personal sanctification and the salvation and sanctification of all souls, of every heart that beats on the face of this Earth!
Sister Maria Cristiana
Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate
House of the Immaculate
4 Brownhill Road, Catford
London SE6 2EJ
tel: +44 (20) 8697 0601
tel – bookstore: +44 (20) 3441 8240