Who was St. Francis de Paula?

In a Facebook post in support of National Catholic Schools Week this week I wrote that I learned to write at St. Francis de Paula Catholic School in San Diego. Indeed, many of my contemporaries and older natives of San Diego probably went to the school. But that brought up a question that I’ve had on and off for years; just who was St. Francis de Paula? Generations have been dutifully meeting their Sunday Mass obligations at that beautiful church in San Diego, but are they familiar with  the parish’s patron saint? I’m not. So let’s remedy that now.

Father Claude Jaillet

Before reviewing his early life, it is important to take a look at why he was chosen as the patron saint of the church in San Diego. The first pastor at San Diego was Claude Jaillet, a Frenchman. Although St. Francis was Italian by birth, he served the last years of his life in service the the French royal court and the faithful of France. He died on April 2, 1507 at Plessis, France. No doubt, this is why he was chosen as the namesake of the church of San Diego; he may have been a beloved saint of Father Jaillet.

Francis was born in 1416 at Paula, in Calabria, Italy to parents that were considered very holy. The couple had difficulty conceiving a child but after praying to St. Francis of Assisi a child was born. Not surprisingly they named him Francis. The young Francis exhibited holiness from a very early age and at 13 he entered the convent of the Franciscan order. A year later he went on a pilgrimage with his parents to Assisi and Rome and upon his return to Paula he entered into a life of solitude where he lived in prayer, mortification, humility and obedience.

In 1435, at the age of 19, he started the order of Minims, the least of the all religious. The Minims lived in perpetual abstinence and extreme poverty and humility. They sought to live unknown and hidden from the world. Francis performed many miracles in answer to prayers and had a great gift for prophecy. This brought him many followers who helped him built monasteries, convents and chapels. Following his namesake’s path, Francis organized orders of nuns, and a third order “for people living in the world.”

When King Louis XI of France heard that Francis had raised his own nephew from the dead, the king sent for the saintly Francis to come to France. Francis refused; he was not a fan of the high and mighty who lived worldly rather than spiritual lives. The pope finally persuaded Francis to go to France. The king, who was in agony,  was hoping Francis would be able to give him life. The saintly Francis instead taught the king of the glory of eternal life with God, and the king was able to live his final days in acceptance of death from the worldly life and looked forward to eternal life.

The king’s successors, Charles VIII and Louis XII, were great admirers of Francis and would not let him return to his beloved Italy. On Good Friday 1507, while his followers read the Passion of Christ from the Gospel of John, Francis died peacefully. He had remained in solitude for three months preparing for this moment. Pope Leo X canonized Francis in 1519. Forty three years later, in 1562, a group of French Protestants called Huguenots broke into his tomb and found Francis’ body incorrupt. They it dragged out of its grave and set it on fire. Catholics were able to recover some of his bones and enshrined them in churches belonging to his order of Minims.

The Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Francis de Paula on April 2, the day of his death. You can get more information on St. Francis de Paula at the Catholic Encyclopedia and at various “saints of the day sites.”

You can read more about Father Jaillet and the early history of St. Francis de Paula in San Diego in Sister Mary Xavier’s book Father Claude Jaillet, Saddlebag Priest of the Nueces.
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