There is evidence that somewhere between 1209 and 1220, Saint Francis communicated with some of these groups through a series of letters entitled the Exhortations to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance.
Penitents remained in their homes (some were hermits) and they lived a simple form of common life which included prayer and works of mercy.
By the mid 15th century, many congregations of women and men claimed these origins and were known collectively as the Third Order Regular of St. Francis.
The word “Regular” was added to the phrase “Third Order” to indicate that this group was now recognized by the Church as a religious order. Those who continued to follow the way of Francis while living in the secular world were eventually named the Secular Franciscan Order to distinguish them from the Third Order Regular or T.O.R.’s. In the mid 18th century, some groups of T.O.R’s emigrated from Europe to the United States where they were invited by local bishops to continue their works of mercy, most notably care of the sick and education. In the mid 19th century a group of brothers from the community at Mt. Bellew, Ireland, made three settlements in the United States: Loretto, Pennsylvania; Brooklyn, New York and Spaulding, Nebraska.
Early in the 20th century friars from these three groups merged and, with the help of Third Order Regular friars from Europe established the first American Province of the TOR: The Province of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, with headquarters in Loretto, PA. The Sacred Heart Province focused its efforts on education and developed what is now Saint Francis University and The Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. A decade or so later our Province of the Immaculate Conception was founded. The Province is headquartered in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania and was formed out of the need to serve Italian immigrants who came to the central part of the state to work on the railroad, in the mines, or in steel mills.
The Story of the Province of the Immaculate Conception
Since its inception, the Province of the Immaculate Conception has embraced change and grown by acknowledging the talents of its members and how these can be used to respond to the shifting needs of the Church. Over our 80 plus years we have served in a wide range of ministries: in schools educating or leading students from ignorance to wider perspectives; in parishes building community and assisting immigrants to take their rightful place in society; in foreign missions where we labored to revitalize the Christian faith in South America and where we have reaped a harvest of native vocations and a newly independent Vice Province in Paraguay. Our ministries continue to evolve. We currently staff two renewal centers for spiritual development, engage in advocacy for the poor and disenfranchised and seek to serve the new waves of immigrants coming to our country.
People wonder about what distinguishes the TOR Franciscans from the OFM Franciscans or the Order of Friars Minor. The brief history we have reviewed helps clarify the answer: The Order of Friars Minor focuses on poverty and the itinerant preaching of the Gospel. We TOR Franciscans emphasize the spiritual path of “continual conversion” – continually turning our life over to God. As the means to accomplish this goal we choose a life of prayer, we help each other remain humble in our relationships, and we share the material resources that we acquire from our ministry by dedicating ourselves to Gospel poverty. This spiritual path of ongoing conversion and the three choices of prayer, humility and poverty are what keep us focused and connected to our tradition. We are brothers who are happy to live this vision of the Third Order Regular Franciscans and share this gift with the Church.