Alexis Falconieri (c 1200-1310) was one of the seven founders of the Servite Order, the Servants of Mary.
He was born in Florence, supposedly in 1200, the son of Bernard Falconieri, whose success as a merchant had made him one of the richest and most powerful men in the city.
The family belonged to the Guelph faction, which, in the conflicts that racked northern Italy at that period, supported the Pope, whereas their rivals, the Ghibellines, favoured the Holy Roman Emperor.
From childhood, however, Alexis Falconieri’s most conspicuous qualities were humility and self-abnegation. He joined a confraternity called the Laudesi, dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
On August 15 1233, the Feast of the Assumption, Alexis and six companions experienced a vision of Mary. Subsequently the seven rich young men abandoned all material possessions and resolved to dedicate themselves to a life of prayer. At first they moved to La Camarzia, a house on the edge of Florence. They then built a few rough huts and a chapel amid the trees and caves on Mount Senario.
Alexis took on the role of raising the slender means which the group required for survival, begging in the streets of Florence where he had lately led a privileged existence.
In 1239 the Virgin again appeared, and instructed her servants to found an order. The apparition also demanded that the Servites should wear a black scapular, or cloak, “for truly I am the Mother of Sorrows”.
The order duly came into being the next year, and by 1285 had attracted 10,000 members, not merely in Italy, but in Germany, France, Italy and Spain. In the 14th century the Servites even sent a mission to India.
The six other founders were all ordained, but Alexis never considered himself worthy of the priesthood. He continued, however, to raise funds. Thanks to the generosity of his brother Chiarissimo, a cloth merchant, in 1252 a new church was completed at Cafaggio, in the outskirts of Florence.
Here, in the 14th century, a picture would inspire special devotion to the Annunciation. It was said that Friar Bartolomeo, the artist, had fallen asleep while painting the Virgin, and that his work had been completed by an angel.
Chiarissimo Falconieri’s daughter, Juliana (12701341), instructed by her uncle Alexis, would found the Sisters of the Third Order of Servites, and be canonised in 1737.
Alexis lived to a great age. He was beatified in 1717 and canonised in 1887.
The Servites first appeared in England in the 1860s under the auspices of Cardinal Manning and in America in 1870.
Today there are some 4,800 Servite friars, Sisters and nuns spread across the world. The order is especially active in education, foreign missions and hospital chaplaincies.