Francis was especially fond of St. Mary of the Angels, the “Little Portion” (aka Portiuncula) – a tiny chapel hidden away in the woods and marshes near Assisi. “This place the holy man loved more than other places in the world; for here he began humbly, her he progressed virtuously, here he ended happily” (LMj II:8).
Although Francis was aware that the kingdom of heaven was established everywhere on earth, and believed that the grace of God could be given to the faithful everywhere, he learned from experience that (the chapel) was filled with a richer grace and often visited by celestial spirits. So he often said to the friars, “See to it my sons, that you never abandon this place. If you are thrown out of one door, go back through another, for this is truly a holy place, and the dwelling place of Christ and His Virgin Mother” (2MP 83).
The chapel’s origin history is a thing of legend. It is said that in the year 352, four holy men from Palestine came to visit the shrines of Rome. Having completed their pilgrimage, they asked Pope Liberius to suggest …some remote place where they could retire from the world. He advised them to go to the mountains of Umbria. They came to Assisi; and in the woods beneath the city, they built a chapel and four huts. This is a pleasant legend, but it has no historical value.
When the Lord gave Francis brothers, they went first to Rivo Torto, but quickly grew inadequate. Through the intercession of the bishop of Assisi, Francis obtained from the Benedictines of Monte Subasio the use of the Portiuncula, for which he paid a basket of fish (AC 56).
Francis rebuilt this Benedictine chapel after he had completed the rebuilding of San Damiano, in 1209. The sanctuary has been renovated, but the rest of the interior is relatively untouched since Francis’ day. The façade was decorated with mosaics later, but the side and back probably give a pretty good idea of what the (Portiuncula) Chapel was like.
The basilica that covers the chapel (Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels) was begun in 1569 by decree of Pius V, on the site of a 13th century Gothic church. It was meant to accommodate the huge crowds of pilgrims who came on August 2 for Il Perdono (Portiuncula Indulgence). An earthquake of 1932 did great damage to the church but spared the (Portiuncula).
Excerpts from: Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs, “Assisi: Portiuncula,” in Pilgrim’s Companion to Franciscan Places, 295-326.
Please Note: (In our tradition, we refer to Mary as “Our Lady” whereas in the Italian tradition, she is referred to as “St. Mary,” therefore the Basilica honoring Mary that covers the Portiuncula is called Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli.
One of the many titles held by Mary is Our Lady of the Angels.)