St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) was the son of Peter Bernadone, a wealthy silk merchant. He spent his youth in extravagant living and pleasure-seeking, went gaily to war, and was taken prisoner in 1202. On his release he resumed his carefree ways, was seriously ill for a time, and returned to the wars in 1205. A vision of Christ he experienced at Spoleto, followed by another on his return to Assisi, caused him to change his whole lifestyle. He went on pilgrimage to Rome in 1206 and on his return devoted himself to a life of poverty and care of the sick and the poor. He was angrily denounced by his father as a madman and disinherited in one of the most dramatic scenes in religious history. After repairing several churches in Assisi, he retired to a little chapel, the Portiuncula, and devoted himself completely to his life's work of poverty and preaching. He soon attracted numerous disciples, among them several leading citizens, Bernard da Quitavalla, merchant, and Peter of Cattaneo, a canon of the cathedral, whom he robed on April 16, 1209, thus founding the Franciscans. In 1210, he received verbal approval of a rule he had drawn up from Pope Innocent III. Two years later Francis was joined by St. Clare (1194-1253), who joined him over the violent objections of her family. She was so impressed by a Lenten sermon of St. Francis in 1212 that she ran away from her home to join him. She was later joined by her sister St. Agnes (1197-1253) who was 15 at that time. In time Clare was joined by her mother and another sister, Beatrice. Clare's influence became such that she was consulted by Popes, cardinals, and bishops. She, next to St. Francis, was most responsible for the growth and spread of the Franciscans.
By 1216 thousands of Franciscan friars were his followers.
The Blessed Giles of Assisi, a native of Assisi, was one of the earliest followers of St. Francis and accompanied him on many of his missions. Known for his austerity and silence, his "The Golden Sayings of Brother Giles" is noted for its humor, deep understanding of human nature, and optimism.
The legacy of St. Francis is ever present and can be observed through the lives of other Saints down through the years. For example, St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941) was born in Poland and became a Franciscan. He was arrested by the Gestapo when the Germans invaded Poland, and imprisoned in the notorious prison camp in Auschwitz in Poland. He took the place of a married man with a family who was one of ten men arbitrarily selected by the commandant to be executed in retaliation for a prisoner who had escaped.