I think most people know that the expression, “City of Angels”, refers to Los Angeles, CA. But did you know that the name is only the shortened form of the original city name, which grew up around one of the Franciscan missions? The original name of the pioneer town was, “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula,” (in English, “City of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the little Portion”). Both “Our Lady Queen of the Angels” and “the little Portion” are steeped in the earliest history of the Franciscan Order. For that we return to the 13 th century and the life of St. Francis of Assisi.
In 1206, when Francis was struggling to determine what it was he was to do with his life, he prayed in the little church of San Damiano just outside the walls of Assisi. There he heard the Word of God saying to him, “Francis, rebuild my church which you see is falling into ruin.” Taking that command very literally, Francis set about rebuilding the little church – stone by stone. He did the same with other abandoned churches in the area. One of them was an abandoned Benedictine chapel in the valley outside Assisi called the porciúncula or “little portion,” referring to the small plot of land associated with the chapel. There was one chapel that was special. St. Bonaventure, a Minister General of the Franciscan Order and the author of the Major Life of St. Francis (LgMaj 2:8) wrote about Francis and the “little portion:” “Sensing that angels often visited there, according to the name of that church, which from ancient times was called Saint Mary of the Angels, he stayed there out of his reverence for the angels and his special love for the mother of Christ.” In 1209, after returning from a visit to Pope Innocent III, during which Francis received permission to form a “religious order,” Francis and the first brothers took up residence at the porciúncula. That small chapel is considered the “home” of the Franciscan family. The formal name of the chapel was “Our Lady Queen of the Angels.”
Now you can see the connection and why the Franciscan missionaries named their Californian mission “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula.” Eventually, the mission became a city and the name was truncated to “Los Angeles,” the City of Angels.
Whatever happened to that little portion of land and the chapel? More than 800 years later, it is still there in the same place. The little chapel of Porciúncula is today housed within a huge basilica (Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli) still laying at the footsteps of the city of Assisi. It is a popular site for tourists and pilgrims alike.
When you visit, there are two aspects of the Franciscan legacy that are always stressed: the beginning of the Franciscans and the end of St. Francis’ earthly life. In the beginning, the Porciúncula was the place from which the friars were sent on mission to the world. It was also to the Porciúncula that Francis asked to be taken when he knew that his death was near. Thomas of Celano also records those events. “…For he wanted to give back his soul to God in that place where, as noted above, he first came to know perfectly the way of truth…. After he had rested a few days in that place he so longed for, knowing the time of his death was close at hand, he called to him two brothers, his special sons, and told them to sing ‘The Praises of the Lord’ with a loud voice and joyful spirit, rejoicing at his approaching death, or rather at the life that was so near.”
August 2nd is a special day to all Franciscans. As we celebrate the Feast of Our Lady Queen of the Angels, we also recall the small Assisi-area chapel that became the foundational home of the Franciscan family – the Porciúncula. It is a place rich in the memory of all Franciscans, and its legacy reaches far and wide. Even as far as California!