Brief History of the Capuchins
The Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans), in its attempt to remain faithful to the intentions of the founder, St. Francis of Assisi, went through many difficulties in the course of its history, which led to disagreements and divisions. The three major branches of the First Order for Religious men, the Franciscan Friars Minor, the Conventual Friars Minor and the Capuchin Friars Minor have their own organisation and legal structure, but share Francis as their Father and Founder.
Just as Saint Francis began his life of poverty and humility in an age that was critical in the life of the Church, so the Capuchin reform began some three hundred years later in a similar time of crisis within the Church. Reform was necessary in the early part of the sixteenth century within the Church and within the Franciscan family.
The Capuchins are the youngest branch, going back to 1525, when some Friars Minor in the Marches wanted to live a stricter life of prayer and poverty to be closer to the original intentions of St. Francis. Thanks to the support of the Papal Court the new branch received early recognition and grew fast, first in Italy, and since 1574 all over Europe. The name Capuchins refers to the peculiar shape of the long hood. The children greeted the friars as “Capuccini” referring to the particular form of capuce or hood. Originally a popular nickname, it has become the official name of the Order, which now exists in 106 countries all over the world, with around 10,500 brothers living in more than 1,700 communities (fraternities, friaries).
From the out-set the Capuchins won the hearts of the people because of their simplicity and austerity, their warmth and above all their dedication to the corporal works of mercy in serving the poor and afflicted. From the 16th to the early 18th Centuries more than 2000 Capuchins died in serving the plague stricken sick in Italy, France, Spain and elsewhere.
Their austere life and appearance (the habit made of poorest cloth available, the wearing of sandals, gaining their meager lively-hood from day to day begging and the wearing of the beard because it was manly, natural and austere) acted as a powerful antidote to the soft and self-indulgent society of the renaissance.