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June 21, 2009

Birthday music for Franciscans

By Patrick Butler


This year one of the most recognizable Catholic religious orders — the Franciscans — turns a monumental 800 years old. And in honor of that special birthday Dominican University in River Forest will hold the “Celebration of Hope and Peace” concert at 7:30 p.m. June 26 and 27 at the Performing Arts Center, 7900 W. Division St. The event is sponsored by Chiesa Nuova, a Franciscan ministry for the performing arts in Chicago, and the Franciscan Province of the Sacred Heart.

For that concert, a Franciscan friar from St. Peter Parish in the Loop composed a musical piece. If the concert does nothing else, it will hopefully “help get St. Francis out of the birdbath,” said Franciscan Father Robert Hutmacher, worship director at St. Peter Parish in the Loop. Hutmacher wrote two of the three pieces on the program: “Dialogue of Francis and Claire” and “Essay for Orchestra: Prayer for Peace.” Also performing at the concert will be world-renowned bass-baritone Alan Held, mezzosoprano Stacy Eckert, the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra, and the 40-voice New Classic Singers.

Man behind the order

And all of this is in celebration of when St. Francis received papal approval for his then-new mendicant order from Pope Innocent III in 1209. Over the centuries he has grown into one of Catholicism’s most popular saints.

But the patron saint of animals was much more complex than many people give him credit for, said Hutmacher, who during much of his four decades as a priest studied the life of the onetime prisoner of war.

St. Francis also started a religious order for women with the help of St. Clare, an Italian noblewoman who renounced her inheritance to begin the first Franciscan order for women, known today as the Poor Clares. The archdiocese is home to one of this order’s convents in Palos Park.

“Francis not only suffered the stigmata and terrible physical maladies, but I believe he also battled deep depression,” as he saw his dream of an “ideal fraternity” collapse. “It was such a low point for the man,” Hutmacher said. So low, in fact, that “he’d literally hide himself in small caves” to get away from it all,” Hutmacher said, adding that St. Francis may also have suffered from what today would be called post-traumatic stress syndrome following the year he spent as a prisoner of war when Assisi, then one of many city states, was fighting neighboring Perugia.

More than once, “Claire’s affirmation and healing presence pulled him out of the darkness,” said Hutmacher. Ironically, they probably didn’t see each other that much.

“They did exchange letters telling each other what they were doing, but there are only a couple of recorded visits, which are sort of Hollywoodized, glammed up. [But] it was in the depths of personal tragedy and despair that Francis reached the pinnacle of his mystical prayer. He saw himself in complete union with the Most High and with all of creation,” Hutmacher said.

“There is a universal lesson in this story I’ve tried to capture in this work.”

Legacy lives on

While St. Francis never saw an end to all the infighting in the fledgling Franciscan movement, the 11 aspiring friars he started with in 1209 eventually grew to 5,000 by the time he died in 1226, Hutmacher said. Today there are several dozen separate religious orders calling themselves Franciscan.

There are even Anglican and Lutheran Franciscans today, said Hutmacher, who is celebrating his 40th ordination anniversary this month and planning next year’s 15th anniversary of Chiesa Nuova (Italian for New Church), a Franciscan arts ministry he founded. The group’s first performance, “Songs of Mother Earth,” was also composed by Hutmacher, who oversees activities at Chiesa Nuova’s studio in a 128-year-old carriage house at 230 S. Laflin.

Hutmacher became interested in music — and St. Francis — while growing up in a Franciscan-run parish in Quincy, Ill. He learned how to play the piano and harp and how to compose music before his ordination to the priesthood at St. Augustine Church in Bridgeport.

While studying in Italy using source materials in some cases written only a few years after Francis died, Hutmacher also shed any illusions he might have had about the supposedly romantic Middle Ages, with all the dragons and princesses, he said.

“I think almost everyone was tubercular, had skin diseases and bad teeth.” Unless of course, the Black Death got them first, Hutmacher said.

For more information or to purchase tickets, call (708) 488-5000 or visit