Spello’s Unforgettable Fra’ Paolo
The 13th-c Sant’Andrea church in Spello has direct links to St. Francis in Assisi and the Franciscans. First historical reference to the church dedicated to the apostle, St. Andrew, dates to the early 11th century and in the 13th century, the church – under the rule of the Bishop of Spoleto – was conceded to the Franciscan order.
Construction of a Franciscan monastery started soon after and in the mid-13th c., Pope Alexander IV granted abundant and generous ten-year indulgences to help pay for the erection of the monastery.
After his encounter with St. Francis in Spoleto, spellano diocesan priest, Andrea Caccioli, become one of the Assisi Saint’s first followers – and then the Sant Andrea monastery’s earliest padre custode (“father custodian,” i.e., term used by the Franciscans to denote head of the monastery). Proclaimed “co-patron” of Spello (along with San Fedele) in 1360, he has never been beatified inspite of a Papal cultus confirmation in the late 18th-c.
Until fairly recently, an elderly Franciscan friar, Fra’ Paolo – as he was called by the spellani (an affectionate shortening of “Frate Paolo” or “Brother Paul”) – lived alone as custodian of the Franciscan Sant’Andrea church for many years. Over two hundred years ago, the adjacent Franciscan monastery had been twice secularized: during the French occupation in 1810, and about fifty years later when it was transformed into an orphanage for girls.
…and then,…finalmente, the Franciscan order returned. In 1982, some restoration was started on the monastery…but it is yet to be completed. As a result, there is no longer a Franciscan community residing next to the church.
I had met Fra Paolo years over twenty-five years ago when visiting the Sant’Andrea church with my tour guests. I remember sharing the story of the splendid early 16th-c Pinturicchio painting to the right of the main altar…
….not far from the sacristy, when a smiling elderly friar with twinkling brown eyes pushed back the heavy wooden door of the sacristy, quietly listened and then invited us in.
This was to be my first meeting with Fra’ Paolo – and visits to him in the Sant’Andrea sacristy would be the highlight of my Spello tour for many years to come. His life – so closely modeled on that of his Order’s founder, the beloved, San Francesco – was an inspiration for each of us.
He’d show us a hidden cloister and the monastery refectory with the walnut tables where the friars had joined for meals, above them 16th-c frescoes of the life of Christ on one wall and parallel episodes in the life of San Francesco depicted on the wall opposite.
Living on is own for well over twenty years, Fra’ Paolo’s lifestyle certainly emanated the Franciscan spirit. He ate very little and simply – “just what I need for nourishment” – growing most of his foods in his small garden behind the monastery.
He grew the plants there, too, for the seeds used in the rosaries he made ….
– and he proudly showed the garden to my tour guests when we visited- and also how he made the rosaries:
His hands are calloused from his rosary-crafting – which he’ll show you with a smile:
Fra Paolo’s solitary days are spent in cleaning the church and the monastery, in meditation and spiritual reading, in the garden, in making his rosaries and perhaps also in working on one of his hand-forged sculptures, created out of nails and each with significant symbolism which he’ll gladly explain in a few simple words to guests:
(By the way, if you visit Fra’ Paolo in the winter months, he’ll have on a heavy cloak and his beret: there’s no heat in the monastery).
And for many years, another one of Fra Paolo’s creations – a vertical Infiorate (flower petal tapestry) – would be at the top of the steps in front of Sant Andrea on the morning of the procession on the Feast of Corpus Cristi.
Fra Paolo worked months prior to each Infiorate festival on his own floral creation for the festival, gluing multi-colored pulverized flower petals on the design he had drawn on plywood.
On a shelf of the walnut cupboard where the priests’ vestments once hung, Fra’ Paolo’s jars of ground flower petals were always neatly lined up,…..
……the flowers Fra’ Paolo had swept up after the Procession the previous year, once the bishop bearing the Sacred Host had walked across the floral welcome for Christ.
They’d all be used for his next Infiorata:
Over fifteen of those “vertical Infiorate” are now placed here and there in the monastery area.
Spello needs a “Museo Fra Paolo.”
I know hundreds would agree.
I can now only write this short tribute.
So very many of my tour guests have written notes to me, emails, and asked about Spello’s inspirational friar in follow-up encounters that I am combing back correspondence now to send everyone that I can news on Brother Paul. For years, he had no longer been living in his unheated tiny room up rickety stairs adjacent to the Sant’Andrea church.
I assumed he’d retired to the Franciscan monastery in nearby Foligno as he’d single-handedly cared for the upkeep of the church and former monastery and his garden out back…and the years were passing.
I decided it was long past the time to make contact once again with Fra Paolo. After numerous calls this morning, a Foligno monastery confirmed his presence and a kind Franciscan – Frate Alessandro, OFM – told me on the phone that Fra Paolo is now ninety-one and was well until recently: he has had a stroke. He is spoon fed by his confratelli but cannot talk nor does he make eye contact and they are not sure what he can perceive.
I asked Frate Alessandro if he could please pass on a message from me “just in case.” Frate Alessandro was happy to do so and will let Fra’ Paolo know that “Anna-l’americana-from-Assisi” and many many people who have met him send with great affection the St. Francis greeting, “pace e bene.”
Peace and good, Fra’ Paolo – with immense thanks.
Read about – and see! – Spello’s stupendous floral festival, le Infiorate
Click here to read about remnants of Roman splendor in Spello
Read about the Pinturicchio’s Renaissance fresco masterpiece in Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello
Click here for more on Roman splendor in Hispellum