December 12: Feast of Finding the Body of St. Francis
By Bret Thoman, SFO
On July 16, 1228, less than two years after St. Francis died, he was declared a saint by Pope Gregory IX in Assisi. The next day, the pope laid the cornerstone of the church to be built in his honor. In just two years, the lower church was finished, and Francis’s body was buried deep under the main altar. The hole was filled in with rock, dirt, and debris to prevent thieves from stealing his relics. For most of the centuries, only the top of the tomb was visible for pilgrims through a hole carved out above the stairs leading to the main altar. In 1818, with the permission of the Holy See, excavations were made for the purpose of finding the relics and proving they were really there. The only stipulation was that work be done at night to avoid disrupting pilgrimage visits during the day. After 52 nights of hard work, the stone sarcophagus containing the bones of St. Francis was found. The space around the tomb was cleared out allowing for pilgrims to visit and venerate the remains of the saint. Pope Leo XII instituted a special feast to commemorate the finding of the body of St. Francis. It is observed by the Franciscan Order on December 12, except in the Americas where it is kept on the following day.