A brief history of the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor
In the early 1500's, three Italian Franciscans – Matthew of Bascio, and the brothers Louis and Raphael Tenaglia of Fossombrone – came together in a desire to live their Franciscan calling with greater emphasis on contemplation and stricter adherence to the Rule given by St. Francis. While at first they had no thoughts of founding a new religious Order, they eventually realized that the demands of their superiors were incompatible with the life they had been called to live.
In 1528, with the help of Pope Clement VII’s niece, the Duchess Catherine Cybo - who was edified by their work among victims of a plague in 1525 - the friars received permission from the Pope to live the life they had chosen without interference. Among other things, Pope Clement VII gave them permission to wear a habit with a pointed hood and to wear the beard – symbols of poverty, simplicity and austerity. To this day, Capuchins are most easily distinguished from other Franciscans by their long, pointed hood and, to a lesser extent, by beards many of them wear. The Order, in fact, owes its present name – it was originally called, "Friars Minor of the Eremitical Life" – to the distinctive hood, or cappuccio, of its habit.
Matthew, Louis and Raphael were not the only Franciscans at the time who felt the need for reform. Shortly after receiving permission for their way of life, many other Francisans began to join them, including some of the best known. One of the contributions of friars such as John of Fano, Bernardino of Asti and Bernardino Ochino, was a broadening of the friars’ ministry. While the first Capuchins engaged mostly in manual labor, later arrivals placed greater emphasis on preaching and studies without, however, weakening the spirit of prayer and austerity. These two forms of work -- manual labor and the apostolate -- still coexist in the Order today.
The new group grew and spread rapidly. Fifty years after their founding they already numbered more than 3500 friars. At its peak, around 1761 there were more than 34,000 Capuchins throughout Europe, the Americas, India and northern Africa.
Throughout its history, the Order has had friars recognized for their holiness – from St Felix of Cantalice (1515-1587), canonized in 1712, to the recently beatified Blessed Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968) and the five friars among the 108 martyrs of Auschwitz, beatified by Pope John Paul II on June 13, 1999. In all, the Order can count 10 saints and 25 blesseds, and the causes of many other friars are being examined.
The ministries of Capuchins are as varied as the situations in which they find themselves. They are teachers and tailors, counselors and cooks, preachers, chaplains, parish priests, and doctors. More importantly than what they do is how they do it. As the name Friars Minor implies, they seek to be lesser brothers to those whom they serve.
The flexibility to go where they are most needed and their manner of working and living earned them the nickname, "brothers of the people".
Presently, there are over 11,000 Capuchin friars of which 68 are bishops working in 93 countries of the world. It is the fourth largest male religious order.