St Frances, a Benedictine mystic, was born in 1384 to an aristocratic Roman family. She wanted to become a nun, but aged 12 her parents forced her to wed Lorenzo Ponziani, who was from a wealthy family and was commander of the papal troops. The marriage was happy, although this is partly because he was away at war for much of the time, fighting in the various wars between the popes and anti-popes.
Soon after marriage Frances fell dangerously ill, but when her husband summoned an expert in magical cures she told the visitor to leave. Later, the 5th-century Roman St Alexis appeared to her in a vision and she was cured.
Frances was famous for her generosity. During a famine she turned her country estate into a hospital and gave out food to the poor – something her father-in-law was not happy about. The family suffered great misfortune. Her husband was seriously wounded after Rome was overrun by Neapolitans, and they also lost two children to the plague. The city was so run-down that wolves roamed the street and she was forced to walk through the countryside looking for firewood and herbs. She reportedly healed 60 people.
In 1425, on the feast of the Assumption, she founded the Olivetan Oblates of Mary, who followed a pattern of combining a life of prayer with helping society. Eight years later she founded a monastery, and devoted herself to this and the care of her husband, who died in 1436. She passed away four years later.
In 1925 Pius XI made Frances the patron saint of drivers, based on the story that an angel would accompany her on the road holding a light.
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