A Thousand-year-old Structure with a Roof that is falling-in

Translated from Pamplona Actual (Spanish text)

Rocaforte (Sangüesa, Navarre, Spain), August 28, 2014

The Council of Rocaforte has obtained the property title to the Eremitorio de San Bartolomé from the hands of the Friars Minor and now desires to promote its restoration to maintain it in existence.

“When it rains, more water falls inside than out”, explains María Eugenia Pérez Iriarte, who graphically describes the state of the hermitage of Saint Bartholomew, the first Franciscan foundation in the Iberian Peninsula. The President of the Council of Rocaforte believes that the maintenance in existence of this thousand-year-old structure requires the “urgent restoration of the roof, on which account it is important to beg help. Then, we will be able to think of what we will do with the rest, since the idea is to repair the whole complex, since it has a historic and cultural value that cannot be allowed to be lost”.

The citizens of Rocaforte agree: “It is the first Franciscan convent, which Saint Francis of Assisi founded in Spain and it is a shame that it is in this condition”, explains Javier Soto Gallués, who is 29. The neighbors have watched how the two buildings of the complex, erected as a hermitage and convent have suffered a progressive deterioration, which has accelerated in recent years. The roof is beginning to collapse, which is going to result in the loss of the artistic patrimony of the place: “On the front of the building there used to be an ancient solar dial which disappeared a decade ago”, relates Soto, “and the sacristy used to host painted medieval walls, possibly of the 12th century, very important on account of being unique in Navarre, and which have entirely deteriorated.”

The first mayor won’t allow “the collapse of a structure which dates from 1098 and holds a privileged position in history as the fourth route of the Camino de Santiago”, which entered Spain, from France, through the pass of Somport. For his part, he accepted on July 30th, past, the donation of the architectural complex of San Bartolomé from the hands of the Franciscan Province of Arantzazu (Navarre), with the plan to begin its restoration.

A strategic position for strengthening the Ruta Tolosana of the Camino of Santiago in Navarre, “If the paths and roads leading to it and the building itself can be repaired, it can be integrated in the Route which passes through the cities of Jaca, la Foz de Lumbier and runs from Racaforte to Izco. It will serve to strengthen this part of the St. James’ Road through Navarre, uniting it with the ones in Aragón, particularly with those from Jaca and Zaragoza,” is the opinion of Jesús Tanco Lerga, co-founder and ex-president of the Association of Friends of the Camino of Santiago.

Tanco, a historian from Olite, believes that Navarre has cared for the route from where it enters the Spanish region from San Juan de Pie de Puerto, where the three routes from France join up. “However, this route which comes from Toulouse, originating in Provence from Italy, which is called the fourth Tolosian Road, needs, in my opinion, to be safeguarded by the Navarre Regional Government.”


History and Legends surrounding the Thousand-year-old shrine

The hermitage of San Bartolomé, constructed by King Pedro I, to commemorate a military victory in 1098 A. D. was converted in 1213 into the first Franciscan foundation in the Iberian Peninsula, and was a destination point for Templars, Pilgrims and lovers of nature.

According to tradition, St. Francis of Assisi had to sleep in Rocaforte and having struck the ground with his walking stick, there sprang-up a leafy Mulberry tree, which though dried up, still remains, and whose bark has curative properties.

The Saint had entered the lands of the ancient Kingdom of Navarre from Italy, proceeding through the pass of Somport, along the Camino of Santiago. In this pilgrimage, which took place from May of 1213 to November of 1215, he had to spend several days in the hermitage. There, he left Friar Bernard of Quintavalle, to care for a sick man. Thus the place was converted into the first Franciscan establishment in the Peninsula and one of the first in the world, whose establishment was confirmed by the Saint a year later, on his return from Compostela and the parts west. (cf. St. Francis’ first biographer, Bl. Thomas of Celano’s First Life of St. Francis, chapter XX, nn. 55-57, in Spanish here.)*

According to tradition, St. Francis felt attracted to the place upon seeing the hermit’s chapel of San Bartolomé, a gothic construction ordered by Pedro I, King of Navarre and Aragon, after his victory against the Muslims in Calasanz on August 24, 1098. Today, the place is the only one existing of the four in the territory of the municipality of Sangüesa, erected with the intention of honoring Saint Bartholomew, who is considered the patron of the triumph of Christendom. The others stood in Ull, as a parish church; in Puyo de Castellón, as a filial church of San Estaban; and a third as a shrine along the river of Onsella y Peña.

The austere construction faces, on the southwest, the village of Rocaforte and its backside the chaparral of the mountains. It is mentioned in the “Little Flowers of Saint Francis” by its anonymous author, a member of the Saint’s order. In the third chapter, he wrote: “At the beginning of the foundation of the Order, when the friars were few and as of yet had no convents, Saint Francis made a pilgrimage to Saint James in Galicia. He took with himself some friars among whom was Friar Bernard. Along the road he met a poor sick man, and charged Friar Bernard to care for him there. Returning from Saint James, Saint Francis met Friar Bernard and the sick man whom he left with him, finding that he was perfectly restored to health, he entrusted to them the foundation of this convent.”

In addition, there exist inscriptions referring to these events on the foundation of the Convent. There, a stone embedded in the wall of the hermitage’s chapel bears this inscription (translated from the Latin): “This monastery, St. Francis founded in honor of Saint Bartholomew, in the year of the Lord 1214”, according to the study by the historial Vicente Villabriga. In the restoration of the building in 1635, Fray Diego Manso, discovered a second stone which read, “This monastery Saint Francis build in honor of Saint Bartholomew, in the year 1213”. A third reference to the passage of the Saint is found in an inscription about 50 feet away at the Fountain of Saint Francis.

The complex, whose cruciform floor plan, dome and apse are Romanesque, was inhabited until 1266 by the Franciscan friars, after which they moved to their convent in Sangüesa, and remained there until its reconstruction in 1635. In 1722, a detached structure was added to the ancient plan of the Franciscan convent, the external structure of which has been practically conserved intact, through the successive and necessary interior remodelings and repairs of the roof; likewise, in the case of the hermitage chapel.

The complex continually housed a stable Franciscan community, until its confiscation by Juan Álvarez Mendizábal (the prime minister of Queen Regent Maria Christina) at the end of the First Carlist War. In 1822 it passed to secular use as a hospice and later as a barn for cattle. The religious care of the hermitage was entrusted to the Franciscans of Olite, who used to open it every August 24th for a mass of vespers.

This is why, on Saturday, August 23, about 100 citizens of Rocaforte attended mass in honor of St. Bartholomew. The town Council stepped forward to receive the property title, donated by the Franciscan Province of Arantzazu, on July 30th. However, it now seeks help in confronting the expenses for the restoration, seeing that, as Father José María Martincorena, the local parish priest, says, “You have to have strong reasons to come here to celebrate mass … with an eye always on the roof!”

The hermitage, set among Almond trees, about 1 km from Rocaforte and 4 km from Sangüesa, offers a bucolic setting which is perfectly adapted to the Franciscan spirit of love for nature, and full of legends and traditions entwined to its past, since the “figure of Saint Bartholomew was always important for the Templar Order, great lovers of this Saint, as he symbolized the victory of Christianity and because he was represented as a martyr, skinned with a knife, they considered him as an example for those who desired to change their lives, whether monks or soldiers”, as Jesús Tanco, the historian from Olite says.

(Translation by Br. Alexis Bugnolo — Photos from Town website: Rocaforte.es website)


* For modern Spanish historians who agree, see also, CRONOLOGÍA DE LA VIDA DE SAN FRANCISCO DE ASÍS, por Ignacio Omaechevarría, o.f.m., and RESUMEN CRONOLÓGICO DE LA VIDA DE SAN FRANCISCO DE ASÍS, por Gratien de París, o.f.m.cap.

Here is St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio’s testimony from his Major Life of St. Francis, chapter IX, n. 6 (Opera Omnia S. Bonaventurae, tome VIII, p. 531-2):  But though (St. Francis) had already traveled abroad even into Spain, by Divine arrangement, a most grave infirmity came upon him, by which he was obstructed in accomplishing his desire (to travel to Morocco and die as a martyr). — see the context in previous sentences.  Translation by Br. Alexis Bugnolo.

For an extensive study in Spanish, regarding St. Francis’ trip to Spain see Fr. Ignacio Omaechevarria, San Francisco de Assis en la Rioja.