The name Servite comes from an age-old Order in the Roman Catholic Church. The Order of Friar Servants of Mary, as they are formally called, traces its roots to 13th century Italy. The Servites came into existence in 1233 A.D. when seven young merchants in Florence heard the Gospel calling them to do something radical with their lives. In response, these seven men turned away from the predominant values of the time, which included the quest for wealth, status, and power, and left their homes and put aside their material possessions in order to dedicate themselves to bringing the Gospel to life in the world.
A hermitage was established on the summit of Monte Senario, a nearby mountain. St. Bonfilius and his companions (known as the Seven Holy Founders) established themselves as a fraternity and committed themselves to each other. Together they shared their work, living a life of poverty, penance, and prayer. Their lives were a statement to the world.
Three qualities characterize these men and those qualities are the essence of the Servite spirit:
- They took the name "friar" because they chose to be brothers to each other… fraternity was their hallmark. The word "friar" comes from the Latin word "Frater," which means brother. All Servites are brothers, even though some have been called to serve the Church as priests.
- They realize that they could not proclaim the Gospel without devoting themselves to the service of their sisters and brothers. Their first project, or apostolate, was to run a hospice for the poor.
- These men were inspired by the life and example of the Blessed Virgin Mary. By their Marian Spirit, they devoted themselves to her and imitated her example of openness, compassion, and hope.
The Order of Friar Servants of Mary was approved as a religious Order by the Bishop of Florence between the years 1240 and 1247 A.D. The Servites chose to live by the rule of St. Augustine and to also add their own expression of Marian devotion and dedication. In 1340 A.D., the Order of Friar Servants of Mary received definitive approval as a religious Order in the Church by the Holy See. The Servites arose in the same time period as the Franciscans and Dominicans, and share many characteristics with these Orders. These Orders are grouped together as the mendicant movement in the history of the Church.
The Seven Holy Founders are all canonized saints. In addition to these original seven, there are numerous Servite saints, including Saint Philip Benizi, Saint Peregrine (patron of those who suffer from cancer, AIDS, and other incurable diseases), Saint Juliana Falconieri, and Saint Anthony Pucci.
In 1870, the Friars came to the United States and began a foundation in Menasha, Wisconsin. In 1874, Chicago became the center of Servite activity in America. The Servite Basilica of Our Lady of Sorrows in Chicago was the home to the Sorrowful Mother Novena, which rose to national fame during WWII.
So what are the Friars up to now? Servites can be found in the following ministries: parishes, education (teaching and administration), shrine ministry, foreign missions, home missions, personal counseling, marriage counseling, crisis counseling, retreat work, hospital chaplaincies, clerical work, administrative work, and manual labor. Currently there is a religious community of ten Servite Friars who minister at Servite High School. Communities of Servite Friars also staff the nearby parishes of St. Philip Benizi (Fullerton) and St. Juliana Falconieri (Fullerton). These Friars are members of the U.S.A. Province of Servites (also represented in the Archdiocese of Chicago, Denver, Portland (OR), St. Louis, and Santa Fe, and the Dioceses of Orange and Orlando).
Today, the Servite Friars together with Servite religious sisters and cloistered nuns form an international community of over 4,800 members. The Order is represented throughout the major areas of Europe, Central and South America, and Australia. In North America, there are Servite provinces in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. In Rome, the Servites maintain a Pontifical Institute for graduate study called the Marianum. The faculty of this prominent school are specialists in Marian studies (i.e., issues related to the role of Mary in the Church). Some of them serve as theological consultants and advisors to the Holy See. In 1986, the Servite Marian Center was established at the Basilica of Our Lady of Sorrows in Chicago. The center is dedicated to spreading the knowledge of Mary, the Mother of God. The center accomplishes this task through teaching, writing and preaching.
The Order also has missionary ministries in Zululand, Swaziland, and Transvaal on the northern border of the Republic of South Africa. Growing foundations have been established in India (Madras), Mozambique, and the Philippines.
The Order remains faithful to its ancient traditions. Fraternity, service, and Marian Spirit remain the mark of a true Servite. Around the globe, the brothers and sisters of the Order teach in schools and universities, minister in parish communities, serve as chaplains, work in hospitals, and do other works to build the Church.