March 9th is the feast day of Santa Francesca Romana, not an immediately familiar saint, even amongst the faithful. And yet in Rome she is quite well-known, partly because she was born, lived and died in the city, and partly because of a rather curious connection. Although she died almost 600 years ago, Santa Francesca Romana happens to be the patron saint of car drivers!
A church dedicated to her lies in the heart of Rome next to the Forum. For almost 100 years, on the saint’s feast day, the church has been a magnet for many of the city’s car drivers, drawing them (and their beloved vehicles) to line up and have their cars blessed by the parish priest.
If you are curious to know why a figure who died hundreds of years before the invention of the car should become the patron saint of its drivers, it all boils down to a legend which grew up around the saint. According to the legend, an angel used to light the road with a lantern when St Frances travelled about, thereby keeping her safe and secure. This was enough for Pope Pius XI, who, in 1925, declared her to be their patron saint and protector.
The saint was born (1384) Francesca Bussa de' Leoni in Ponziani, but was known to her friends as Ceccolella. In 1425, Francesca, who was a member of the Roman nobility, founded the order of the Olivetan Oblates of Mary. A few years later she set up a convent to house the order. It is located in the centre of her native city at Tor de’ Specchi, close to the Campidoglio. It was the only house of the order and remains in use to this day. The convent opens its doors to the public but once a year, on March 9th.
Francesca died in 1440 and was canonised by Pope Paul V in 1608