When Lorenzo died, Francesca went to live in a house for the widowed members of the community. She served as superior for four years until her death in 1440.
The religious house Francesca founded is still present in Rome today. While the basilica containing her remains is open all year, the house is only open to the public once a year on her March 9 feast, allowing visitors to see two rooms filled with historic frescoes, one of which was her former cell.
Although she’s not very well known outside of Rome, St. Francesca Romana has been lauded as a woman whose charity and service to the poor rival those of the modern-day St. Teresa of Calcutta.
St. Frances of Rome is “a saint loved because she was, in 1400, like we consider Mother Teresa of Calcutta today,” Italian priest Father Teodoro Muti told CNA.
“She was the saint of the poor and of the needy,” he said, noting that although she belonged to a rich and noble family, the saint spent much of her free time in the hospital caring for the sick.
And she didn’t just care for the infirmities of the body “but also to the infirmities of the spirit; she united the two things: the care of the body and of the spirit.”
Muti is a monk with the order of Our Lady of Mount Olivet, also called the Olivetans, who operate the Basilica of Santa Francesca Romana, where St. Francesca Romana’s remains have been buried since her death in 1440.
Father Muti said Francesca is widely considered “the saint of mercy” in Rome because “she practiced all of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.”
The priest noted that while there are many saints buried in Rome, not many of them are locals. Because of this she is considered “the saint of the city,” and devotion to her is so strong that even today many young girls are named after her.
Each year thousands of pilgrims and locals leave letters, cards, and photos at her tomb in the basilica, which consists of a glass case containing her skeleton with a veil on her head.
Muti said that in addition to celebrating Mass and offering various prayers throughout the day, Francesca’s feast is also marked with the blessing of cars near the coliseum.
(Story continues below)
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The blessing is rooted in the fact that Francesca’s guardian angel would accompany her on her nightly rounds in the city.
Although it was dangerous at the time, “the angel always protected her from any harm,” Muti said, explaining that it is for this reason Pope Pius XI proclaimed her patron of motorists, which prompted what has become the annual Roman tradition of blessing cars on her feast day.
This story originally appeared on CNA on March 20, 2016, and was updated March 8, 2023.
Elise Harris was senior Rome correspondent for CNA from 2012 to 2018.