February 28, 2011
Sr. Helen Hadcock explains the meaning of the San Damiano Cross.


Sr. Helen Hadcock explains the meaning of the San Damiano Cross.


Before his conversion, St. Francis of Assisi was a young man with a generous heart. Unlike his parents, he yearned for more than money. Life was too short to be spent acquiring material wealth.

So Francis began to pray and search for God in his daily life. He began walking in the forested areas near Assisi, Italy, and discovered abandoned, dilapidated chapels. He would stop and pray.

One day, while praying before the icon of the crucified Christ at San Damiano Church, the eyes of the icon opened and the head nodded forward toward Francis. From the cross Jesus spoke in a clear and tender voice, “Francis, don’t you see that my house is falling into ruin? Go, then and rebuild it for me.”

The original cross, about six feet tall by four feet wide, is a painting on linen glued to walnut. The cross emphasizes the divinity of Christ and is inspired by John’s Gospel. An unknown Syrian monk painted it in the 11th century. It presently hangs in the Basilica of Saint Clare in Assisi. Franciscans cherish this cross as the symbol of their mission from God.

Currently Edmonton’s Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement are holding a series of workshops about the cross at the Franciscan Centre, 11035-92 St.

During the first session on Feb. 16, Sister Helen Hadcock, the centre’s director, gave each participant a small replica of the San Damiano Cross and explained the myriad details on the crucifix and their meaning.

The cross is of a type sometimes called an icon cross because besides the main figure, it contains images of other saints and people related to Christ’s crucifixion. It was one of a number of crosses painted with similar figures at the time with the purpose of teaching the meaning of the crucifixion and thereby strengthening the faith of the people.


“The reason why I’m holding these sessions is that part of our charism of atonement is helping individuals to become at one with themselves, at one with God and at one with their neighbours,” Hadcock said in an interview.

San Damiano Cross

San Damiano Cross

‘“It’s to help people grow in their faith, grow in their knowledge of God in their daily lives.”

Following his encounter with Jesus at San Damiano Chapel, Francis awakened to a new fervour to imitate the crucified Christ. He had found his purpose in life. He began to repair San Damiano and other dilapidated chapels in the area.

Slowly he began to realize that the crucified Lord was asking him to repair the universal Church. The Church had become wealthy and powerful and Francis’ mission involved calling Church leaders and members to Gospel simplicity and to imitate Christ.

For Francis, it began by serving lepers and poor people with dignity as he himself embraced a life of poverty. He preached in churches and on the streets about the necessity to follow Jesus Christ. Other men were attracted to the poor man of Assisi and thus Francis founded the Franciscan order. Women too were attracted to his preaching and sought a life of prayer and service to the poor.

Franciscans treasure the San Damiano Cross because it symbolizes their mission from God to commit their lives and resources to renew and rebuild the Church in the power of God.


“The cross is important because it brings you into the presence of God,” explained Hadcock. “When you meditate upon the icon you get to know who Jesus Christ is, you get to know of his suffering, of his tremendous love and what a teacher he was.”

Jesus Christ is represented both as wounded and strong on the cross. He stands upright and resolute, projecting the life of divine nature in a body pierced by nails in the hands and feet, by the crown of thorns on his head, and by the soldier’s lance in his side.

“This is not the agonizing Jesus,” said Hadcock. “It’s a Jesus who is in control, confident and unafraid.”

The next largest figures on the icon are the five witnesses of the crucifixion: on the left are the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist, to whom Jesus entrusted his mother. On the right are St. Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James, and the centurion who in Mark’s Gospel proclaims, “Truly this is the Son of God.”

Ten of Jesus’ Apostles do not appear on the icon because they were hiding during the crucifixion.

During the session, Hadcock asked participants where they would place themselves during the crucifixion. The sister said she would probably place herself with the 10. Others said they would place themselves right beside Jesus.

Other sessions on the San Damiano Cross will be held Feb. 26 from 1 to 3 p.m. and March 2 from 1 to 2 p.m.