Third Order Regular of St. Francis of Penance
The origin of the Regular Third Order, both male and female, possibly was rooted in the lifetime of St. Francis. His first official biographer, Thomas of Celano, lists hermits as among the categories of lifestyle of those who flocked to follow the Saint. The organized form of this life, though, can be more reliably traced back to the second half of the thirteenth century, but no precise date can be indicated. It was organized, in different forms, in the Low Countries, in the south of France, in Germany, and in Italy. Probably some secular tertiaries, who in many cases had their house of meeting, gradually withdrew entirely from the world and so formed religious communities, but without the three substantial vows of religious orders. Other religious organizations, such as the Beguines (women) and Beghards (men) in the Low Countries, sometimes passed over to the Third Order.
Towards the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th centuries, some suspicion of heretical opinions fell on some of these free religious unions of the Third Order (bizocchi), as we can infer from the Papal Bull of John XXII "Sancta Romana", December, 1317 (Bull. Franc., V, 134). More than a century later St. John of Capistran (1456) had to defend the Tertiaries in a special treatise: "Defensorium tertii ordinis d. Francisci", printed with other minor works of the saint at Venice in 1580.
Throughout the 14th century, the regular tertiaries of both sexes had in the most cases no common organization; only in the following century we can observe single well-ordered religious communities with solemn vows and a common Religious Superior. Pope Martin V submitted in 1428 all tertiaries, regular and secular, to the direction of the Minister-General of the Friars Minor (Bull. Franc., VII, 715), but this disposition was soon revoked by his successor Pope Eugene IV. We meet thus in the same 15th century with numerous independent male congregations of regular tertiaries with the three vows in Italy, Sicily, Dalmatia, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, and in the Netherlands. Contemporaneously there existed sister congregations of the Third Order with solemn vows, for instance, the Grey Sisters of the Third Order, serving in hospitals, spread in France and Flanders, whose remarkable statutes of 1483 have recently been published by Henri Lemaître in Arch. Franc. Hist. IV, 1911, 713-31, and the congregation—still existing—founded at Foligno in 1397 by Blessed Angelina of Marsciano (1435). Leo X, to introduce uniformity into the numerous congregations, gave in 1521 a new form to the Rule, now in ten chapters, retaining of the Rule as published by Nicholas IV all that could serve the purpose, adding new points, especially the three solemn vows, and insisting on subjection to the Order of Friars Minor. For this last disposition the Rule of Leo X met with resistance, and never was accepted by some congregations, while it served until the late 20th century as the basis of the constitutions of many later congregations, especially of numerous communities of sisters.
Single congregations after Leo X
The two Italian congregations, the Lombardic and Sicilian, which had constituted themselves in the course of the 15th century, were united by Pope Paul III, and since Sixtus V enjoyed entire independence from the First Order. It had then already 11 provinces.
In the 17th century the congregations of Dalmatia and the Low Countries (based in Zepperen) were united with the Italian Order. In 1734 Clement XIII confirmed their statutes. Whilst the French Revolution swept away all similar congregations, the Italian one survived with four provinces, of which one was in Dalmatia. In 1906 a small congregation of Tertiary lay brothers in the Balearic Islands and a little later two convents with colleges in the United States joined the same congregation, which in 1908 numbered about 360 members.
The habit is that of the Conventuals, from whom they can hardly be distinguished. The residence of the Minister General is at Rome, near the Basilica of Sts. Cosmas and Damian. After the time of Pope Leo X, the Spanish congregation often had troubles on the question of its submission to the First Order. After Pius V (1568) had put the whole Third Order again under the care of the Minister General of the Friars Minor, the superiors of the three provinces constituted in Spain could, after 1625, partake at the General Chapters of the Friars Minor and since 1670 they have had even a definitor-general to represent them.
The French congregation, named from their house at Paris "of Picpus", was reformed by V. Mussart (d. 1637), and maintained close ties with the First Order till its extinction in the French Revolution. A well-known member of this congregation is Hyppolit Helyot, the author of an important history of the religious orders. In 1768 it had four provinces with 61 convents and 494 friars.
A new Rule, written by friars and sisters of various congregations, was approved by Pope Paul VI in 1978. It is the current Rule followed by all congregations of the Third Order Regular, both men and women.
During the 19th century, Brothers from the surviving communities in Ireland were invited to teach in the Dioceses of Brooklyn, Pennsylvania, and Spalding, Nebraska. In their native land, they were communities of lay brothers who specialized in trade schools for young men. As such, they were subject to the local bishops, each of whom acted as their Superior General within his diocese.
After several years, the Brothers desired to strengthen their links to the international Order and some desired to seek Holy Orders. Eventually, the communities in Pennsylvania and Nebraska were permitted by their bishops to seek consolidation with the friars of the Third Order Regular, by then based in Rome. A number of the Brothers in Brooklyn also sought this, but were denied permission by the local bishop there, as he did not wish to lose their teaching service in his diocese which he feared might happen were they to become priests.
Formal petitions were sent by the communities through 1907, which were received and accepted by the friars, who submitted their request to the Holy See. Papal permission was granted and in 1908, the two communities were incorporated into the Order and in 1910 were established as the autonomous American Province of the Sacred Heart of the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular. In 1920, the Province divided and the foundations of a new Province of the Immaculate Conception were established. As a result of this division, friars from the Spanish Province were invited to the United States to work with the Spanish-speaking populations of Texas and New York.