The “Conventual” Franciscans
In 1209, St. Francis of Assisi received formal approval from Pope Innocent III for his new way of life. He called his community the “Friars Minor,” a title literally meaning Lesser Brothers. St. Francis wanted his followers to imitate the humility of Christ and to minister to the least in society.
After St. Francis' death, his movement possessed such vitality, with so many opinions on how to live his form of Gospel life, that over time his charism could not be contained in one community. In 1517, the Order divided into autonomous branches, each professing a valid perspective of their observance of his Rule.
The “Conventual” followers of St. Francis chose to minister in the heart of the cities rather than in more remote hermitages. They chose to band together in large houses (conventus, from the Latin). From these “fortresses of faith” the concentration of talented men living a life steeped in prayer, study and work became like a well-armed garrison that fought against the power of darkness and despondency on the battleground of urban life.
From these friaries (as Franciscan houses are called in North America), these Conventual friars charted the stars with Galileo, developed math theorems with Da Vinci, assisted in the design of St. Peter's, composed with Mozart, invented eyeglasses, and offered charity and consolation toward all.
The Conventual Franciscans in North America
Although the friars had been missionaries to the East since the 13th century, by the late 15th century they felt it was time to explore any new worlds to the West. Friar Juan Perez of Seville, an astronomer, pleaded Columbus' case before King Ferdinand, to whom he was financial advisor, and to Queen Isabella, to whom he was confessor. Friar Juan Perez was able to sail with Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. This Conventual Franciscan is credited with celebrating the first Mass in the New World.
The United States
Between the 1780s - 1850s, several individual Conventual Franciscans ministered to German immigrants in the East. But it was in 1852, at the instigation of Bishop Jean Odin of Texas, that the Conventual Franciscans were able to establish a permanent presence in North America. These daring men of German, Polish and Belgian ancestry, were given four parishes and twelve missions that extended westward to California and south to Mexico.
Two years after their arrival, in 1854, the friars were also invited East to minister in Brooklyn, New York. There they were responsible for twenty-two mission stations. By 1872 the Franciscan Administration in Rome officially transformed the American mission into an independent Province.