he seeds of the Order were planted in 1525 when a Franciscan priest from the Marche region of Italy, Matteo da Bascio, was convinced that the Franciscans of his time were not what Saint Francis had imagined. He wished to return to the original lifestyle, as practiced by the founder, living in solitude and penance.
His superiors tried to suppress these new notions, forcing Matteo and his companions to hide from the authorities who wanted to arrest them for abandoning their religious obligations. Those years coincided with the Reformation and therefore, any attempt at reform or renewal was held suspect by the superiors of the religious Orders. Matteo and his companions found refuge with the Camaldolese monks. In gratitude, the friars subsequently adopted the Camaldolese custom of wearing an untrimmed beard and a hood similar to theirs (the mark of a hermit in the Marches region). The friars’ nickname (cappuccino) derives from their characteristic hood.
In 1528, through the mediation of Caterina Cibo, Duchess of Camerino, Matteo obtained the approval of Pope Clement VII with the bull, Religionis zelus. He was given permission to live as a hermit and to go about preaching to the poor. The permission was not limited to himself, but extended to all those who would join him in his attempt to live by the most literal observance possible of the Rule of St. Francis. Matteo and the original group were soon joined by others. Initially, they were called Friars Minor of the Eremitical Life. Due to strong opposition on the part of the Observant Franciscans the new group was placed under the authority of the Conventual Franciscans, but had their own Vicar. They became known as the congregation of the Friars Minor Hermits.
Trying times ensued when, in 1542, the General Vicar of the Order, Bernardino Ochino, joined the Protestant Reformation.
In 1574, Pope Gregory XIII allowed the Order to settle in “France and all other parts of the world and to erect houses, places, Custodies and Provinces,” thereby authorizing its diffusion outside Italy. In the 16th century, the Capuchins numbered about 14,000 friars, with nearly 1,000 friaries. The Order’s numbers would further increase between 1600 and the mid-1700s. Eventually, they would reach 34,000 friars and 1,700 friaries. During that same period, the Order modified, or rather, developed some of its initial characteristics. While remaining faithful to the vow of radical poverty, the Capuchins had proven to be effective preachers. Given their initial relationship with the Conventuals, this led to a certain “conventualization” of the Order. This development was also supported by the Holy See which was urging religious Orders to suppress smaller religious houses and encouraging larger local fraternities which could be better controlled. One example of this development is reflected in the original permission to allow the brothers a few useful books, primarily to insure proper training for preachers, developed into having full-fledged libraries. To appreciate better the image of the Capuchins in the mind of the common folk, one has only to consider the contrast between the Capuchin, Br. Cristofo, and Don Rodrigo in Alessandro Manzoni’s Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed).
The Capuchins were also very active in the missions. For example, as Pellegrino da Forlì reported, as early as 1703, the Indian Archdiocese of Agra was entrusted to the brothers of the Order.