|Richard Zampella Returns the Tomb of St. Francis of Assisi 37 Years Later|
In 1977, I traveled to Assisi in the province of Perugia in the Umbria region, on the western flank of Monte Subasio. It is the birthplace of St. Francis, who founded the Franciscan religious order in the town in 1208. On that trip I was 11 years old and brought there by my father Arthur Dante Louis Zampella (1917-1992). My father was born a Roman Catholic and despite his eventual conversion to a protestant, he never forgot his humble Catholic beginnings . Throughout his life, my father was sensitive to the unique needs pertaining to the care and protection of the elderly, animals and children. As a result, it was fitting that he would be interested in visiting the birthplace of Saint Francis, the patron saint of animals and ecology.
It was a late afternoon in 1977 that we arrived in the provincial town of Assisi. The Papal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi (Italian: Basilica Papale di San Francesco, Latin: Basilica Sancti Francisci Assisiensis) is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Order of Friars Minor—commonly known as the Franciscan Order—where St. Francis was born and died. The basilica is one of the most important places of Christian pilgrimage in Italy.
Halfway down the nave of the lower basilica one can descend into the crypt via a double stairway. This burial place of St. Francis which was discovered in 1818. His remains had been hidden by Brother Elias to prevent the spread of his relics in medieval Europe. By order of Pope Pius IX a crypt was built under the lower basilica. It was designed by Pasquale Belli with precious marble in neo-classical style. But it was redesigned in bare stone in neo-Romanesque style by Ugo Tarchi between 1925 and 1932.
Upon entering the crypt and paying solemn respect to the tomb of St. Francis, I sensed a hesitation in my father that suggested that he wanted to stay for a moment. I stepped to the rear of the chapel and peered out from behind a column in order to see reason for the delay. From that spot, I observed him kneel and genuflect to signify both his respect and adoration to St. Francis. Upon rising, he turned where we caught each others eyes. In that moment we both understand that he had shown me a deeply personal side of himself. We never spoke a word, and I know he was glad that I was able to see this aspect of him. He took my hand where we quietly ascended the stairs of the basilica together.
In 2013 I returned to the crypt of St Francis to photograph the chapel and quietly reflect upon his experience with my father 37 years earlier.