St. Francis of Assisi is one of the most beloved and venerated saints in the history of the Church. So then how did his body get lost for hundreds of years – only to be rediscovered surrounded by a strange assortment of objects?
The holy founder of the Order of Friars Minor passed away in October of 1226, and less than two years later, Pope Gregory IX declared him a saint. The next day the same pope laid the foundation stone for the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, still standing today.
This is where things start to get a bit hazy about his body. Some sources say that a friar in charge of the basilica’s construction secretly sealed his body into a part of the church to protect it from possible Saracen invaders. Other sources say that Francis’ body wasn’t sealed away until the 15th century, in order to protect it from in-fighting among Italian families.
Either way, by the 19th century, no one was quite sure where the saint’s body was – and no one had known for centuries.
In the early 1800s, Pope Pius VII gave local Catholics permission to search for the body. Fairly confident the body was somewhere in the basilica, the team removed part of the floor in the main church and found a series of iron bars, similar to what was common for protecting tombs in the 13th century. After the whole area was excavated, under a large amount of rock and through a tunnel they found the undisturbed remains of St. Francis.
The saint, however, wasn’t alone. With his body were a few objects: 12 silver coins, 29 beads, a ring, a piece of iron, and a stone on which Francis’ head was resting.
It’s not clear what these objects meant. One source says the coins were there to help date the tomb. Others take a more sinister interpretation, claiming that the friar who sealed Francis’ tomb was an alchemist and that the objects were a part of some sort of ancient pagan ritual. The fact that some of these objects seem to have since disappeared encourages conspiratorial interpretations.
Either way, St. Francis’ body was moved to a public tomb within the basilica and is now open to pilgrims for veneration.