The Ghost of Saint Francis

“Saint Francis” (Digital Art by Randy Wollenmann)

I’ve long been a fan of the Google Calendar app, even after switching my mobile from Android to Apple. Google Calendar allows the option to add “Christian Holidays” so I promptly checked the box. We’re talking Christmas and Easter of course, but how about the Feast Day of Saint Francis (last Sunday), Saint David (3/1), and Saint Patrick (3/17)? Saint Patrick sure, but why also Francis and David? There are hundreds of saints yet Google chose just three. My curiosity was piqued.

So begins my beyond-the-grave story, perfect with Halloween on the horizon. Google’s choice of saint days got me wondering if there’s a spectral connection between me (David) and Francis. So I dove into the details. Now all I can say is, be careful what you wonder about.

Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi, Italy

The quick history of Francis. He’s the patron saint of animals. He was an Italian living in the 1200s from the central hill town of Assisi. Francis grew up wealthy but abandoned his riches to serve the Church and the poor. But it’s the animals that make him so popular among today’s saints. He (supposedly) communicated with wolves. He often preached to flocks of birds. He built the very first Christmas crèche, including live animals alongside the manger.

Now then, my Francis ghost story. Let’s cover this spookiness from present to past. I’ve discovered a pattern of events that has me convinced Saint Francis is trying to reach out. As a matter of fact, he’s been in touch every ten years back to when I was a baby. If you agree you can see why I’m expecting another “call” in 2023.

  • 2013: I’ve told you Francis is the patron saint of animals but guess what? He’s also the patron saint of avoiding fires. In June 2013, my family and I evacuated our Colorado house for a week (horses and dogs in tow) to escape one of the worst fires in our state’s history. When we returned, our house was not only intact but had no smoke damage. Meanwhile, over 500 properties within a five-mile radius were completely destroyed.

  • (Also in) 2013: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected Pope. He promptly changed his name to Francis. There have been 266 Popes in history, but Cardinal Bergoglio is the very first to select the name “Francis”.

  • 2003: The Front Range of the Colorado Rockies experienced one of the worst blizzards in our state’s history. In a matter of hours a single storm dropped over thirty inches of snow, with drifts of five feet or more. My family and I were snow-locked in our house for over a week. 100,000 residents lost power while 4,000 travelers were stuck at the international airport in Denver. Saint Francis is also the patron saint of the environment. Was he making his presence felt with unprecedented weather?
    Assisi’s sister city

  • 1993: My family and I moved from San Francisco to Colorado. San Francisco (named for Francis) is the sister city of his birth town of Assisi. But here’s where I really paused. Francis is also the patron saint of… Colorado. And how many other U.S. states chose Francis as their patron saint? Zero.

  • 1983: I’m in my junior year in college, studying abroad in Italy. The patron saint of Italy is… Francis, of course. I also traveled to Assisi while I was there, including a visit to the church where Francis is buried. This is the only time I’ve ever been to Italy.

  • 1973: Acclaimed biographer Ira Peck writes, The Life and Words of St. Francis of Assisi. It’s a short read, with easy language intended for middle-schoolers. Where was I in 1973? Starting my first year of middle school.

  • 1963: On March 21st, the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary closed for good after thirty years. Alcatraz is the famous island prison in the San Francisco Bay. What does Alcatraz have to do with my ghost?  Back in 1202, a young Francis was thrown in prison for a year, captured while serving a military effort. His spiritual conversion from wealthy patron to humble priest, it is said, took place during this time in prison.

Our Saint Francis statue

And there you have it. Every ten years – starting the year after I was born – Saint Francis seems to have reached out to me. Oh, one more thing.  My wife and I have a statue of Saint Francis in our garden. “Of course you do”, says Francis.  He’s been standing quietly there for years, facing the house, just keeping his eye on us.

Francis will reach out to me again in 2023, I’m sure of it now. He’ll find another way to make his presence felt. When I read up on him I noted he’s also the patron saint against dying alone and the patron saint of needleworkers. Against dying alone? Am I destined to perish alongside several others in 2023? That’s not very nice of you, Francis.  I’d better take up knitting.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Pan-Pacific Keepsake

A year ago I wrote a piece called Athens of the South, a reference to the city of Nashville and its remarkable full-scale replica of the Greek Parthenon in downtown Centennial Park.  The Nashville Parthenon is a leftover from the 1897 Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition.  If you ever visit the ruins of the real Parthenon, you might want to add Nashville to the itinerary to see how the structure looked in its full splendor.

Shortly after my trip to Nashville, I traveled to San Francisco for my niece’s wedding.  She chose a remarkable venue for her ceremony – outdoors under the dome of the elegant Palace of Fine Arts, near the Golden Gate Bridge in the Marina District.  The Palace, as it turns out, has much in common with the Nashville Parthenon.  Despite more popular attractions, both structures belong on the “must-see” lists of their respective cities.

The Palace of Fine Arts, like the Nashville Parthenon, is one of the few remaining structures from its World’s Fair; in this case San Francisco’s 1915 Pan[ama]-Pacific International Exposition.  Typical of a World’s Fair, the Pan-Pacific showcased products, inventions, and cultures of the day, and remained open to the public for almost a year.  The 600+ acres of San Francisco’s Marina District (where I rented my first post-college apartment) served as the Exposition’s central footprint, with the Palace on the west end and “The Zone” of amusements and concessions on the east (near Fort Mason).  Even though the Pan-Pacific’s structures were designed from plaster and burlap – to literally fall to pieces after a year, a few have been preserved to this day. The Civic (Bill Graham) Auditorium is a Pan-Pacific structure in its original location.  The Japanese Tea House was loaded onto a barge and shipped down the bay to the town of Belmont, where it still stands today as a restaurant.  Two of the Exposition’s state pavilions (Wisconsin, Virginia) were relocated to nearby Marin County.

The Pan-Pacific Exposition – like the Tennessee Centennial – brimmed with remarkable structures, including ten exhibition “palaces” and the 435-ft. tall Tower of Jewels.  Surely none of these were more elegant than the Palace of Fine Arts.  My first visit to the Palace was back in the 1970’s, when it housed the Exploratorium, a kid’s-dream hands-on maze of exhibits showcasing the wonders of mechanics, physics, and chemistry.  The Exploratorium filled the Palace’s Exhibition Hall for 44 years before moving to its current location in the Embarcadero.  The Exhibition Hall was all about art for the Pan-Pacific, but it’s had several creative uses since, including tennis courts, storage of military trucks and jeeps, and a temporary fire department.

Let’s be honest though – the Exhibition Hall is not why you visit the Palace of Fine Arts; at least not anymore.  You’ll be captivated by the glorious Roman/Greek-inspired structure of dome, rotunda, and adjoining pergolas instead.  Take a walk between the colonnades to get a sense of its monumental scale.  Have a picnic on the grassy shores of the lagoon.  The Palace’s best photo opp: on the east side of the water under the Australian eucalyptus trees.  Your view is uninterrupted, and mirrored in the water’s reflection.  It’s a popular spot for wedding photos, as my wife and I discovered thirty years ago:

Personal connections or not, I like to think of the Palace of Fine Arts as a large-scale keepsake; a reminder of those simpler-yet-somehow-more-elegant days and generations gone by.  Perhaps the Palace gazes forlornly to the east, seeking the grandeur and crowds of the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exhibition.  Perhaps she’s content to just watch over the parade of newlyweds on the far side of the lagoon.  Either way, I’m glad she’s still around.  Like the Nashville Parthenon, the Palace of Fine Arts is fine art.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.