After Francis had given away all his rich clothes and begun to wear the ragged garment given him by the Bishop, he started to repair the church of San Damiano while living in the woods and begging in Assisi for stones and mortar, as well as for his food. The poor people who had been enriched by his gifts shared their food with him. It was not long before Bernard of Quintevalle, a rich man from Assisi, recognising the real joy that Francis experienced, asked to join him. Frances loved Bernard because he was first and called him his first-born son. Peter and Sylvester soon joined them followed by Giles, Rufino and Leo. Once the little band of brothers grew Frances named them “The Little Poor Men of God”. Leo was a priest and became a constant companion of Francis and wrote down the Rule dictated by Francis and was with him on La Verna when he received the Stigmata.
As the summer waned and the nights grew cold and misty the brothers needed a place to shelter. The road passing San Damiano and leading down into the valley is a “road that Francis would have had to travel often in order to go to his father’s properties in Fontanelle and Palude” (Fortini, p 213) so he knew of a place where there was a ruined building that had once sheltered the lepers, who had moved to the hospital nearer the city. It stood beside a little stream which meandered through the woods so the place and the building were called Rivo Torto which means “Crooked Brook”.
The ruins provided space so cramped as the group grew in number, that Francis chalked marks on the ceiling to allocate spaces for each one to sleep. It was indeed a miserable place but the first brothers were happy there, leaving it each day to work at the hospital, care for the lepers and help the sick and poor in the town. On their return they shared the food they begged with all their new friends. It was from Rivo Torto that Francis set out on foot with his little group for Rome to seek the blessing of Innocent III on their way of life.
At his first meeting with Francis the Pope rejected the ideals of Francis, considering his penitential rule with its emphasis on poverty too harsh. He did not grant permission for it. However, that night the Pope had a dream in which he saw a ragged little man holding up the great basilica of the Lateran. He, recognised Francis as the little man and sent for him again. There he gave him his blessing together with permission to preach. In this time when the church was beset by heresy and complaints about mendicants the cardinals opposed his approval. To them Pope Innocent said, “This is truly the man who, with example and doctrine will uphold the Church of Christ” (2 Celano, 17).
The brothers returned home to Rivo Torto rejoicing. However, Rivo Torto was their home for only one autumn and winter for they were evicted by an irascible peasant who wanted to use it to shelter his ass!Today little evidence of that first home of the brothers remains, but the story of their life at Rivo Torto is a precious part of our Franciscan chronicles because while there:
1. the first true community was developed,
2. the first primitive rule was approved and
3. from there Francis began his life of preaching.
A great blessing came to the Order because of the eviction from Rivo Torto: the Benedictine Abbot from Mt Subasio, on becoming aware that the Little Poor Men had no place to sleep, gifted them with a tiny chapel named The Portiuncula nearby, together with the ground around it where oak trees grew. The brothers accepted the chapel gladly, built their huts around it and restored it with their own hands. So the Portiuncula and not Rivo Torto is the recognised birthplace of the Franciscan Order and that little chapel has been preserved till today under the dome of the great basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels … but that is another story.
Reference: Fortini, Arnaldo. Francis of Assisi, A translation of Nova Vita de San Francesco by Helen Moak. Crossroad NY, 1981
The church of Santa Maria of Rivotorto - Rivotorto Sanctuary
The church of Santa Maria of Rivotorto, famous as the "Sanctuary of Rivotorto", is located in the homonymous village, a few kilometres south of the city of Santa Maria degli Angeli.
The edifice, nowadays under the care of the Order of the "Frati Minori Conventuali" (Convent of the Minor Friars), was born with the aim of preserving the structures of the Sacred Tugurio, which is the place where San Francesco gathered together his followers before he obtained from the Order of the Benedictine Monks the ownership of the Porziuncola. The actual building in neo gothic style, built after the earthquake of 1854 after Christ that destroyed the church dating from the 16th century, is made of three bays one can reach through three doors. The façade is decorated with the representation of the miracle that the story says happened in theses places: San Francesco, in fact, would have appeared on a carriage of fire that was flying above Rivotorto when in reality he was in Assisi waiting for an audience of the Bishop Guido II.
Inside, in addition to the suggestive view of the Tugurio, one can admire twelve paintings dating back to the 17th century, painted by Cesare Permei, representing some moments of the life of San Francesco during the period he spent in Rivotorto.
Since 1849, the Franciscan Church of Rivo Torto has been a Parish Church of the Diocese of Assisi. The Brothers have a presence here that is much appreciated by the population and they co-ordinate numerous pastoral activities. But that was not always the case.
The first companions of Francis relate their memories of those first months when the Brothers, although announcing peace, reaped many harassments. To these very difficult experiences of the beginning, Francis encouraged his Brothers to respond in an evangelical manner. Some concrete and moving examples are still relevant today.