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Pope's Franciscans kick-start fundraising effort

BY NICOLE WINFIELD Associated Press

ROME - Pope Francis' namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, founded his order of mendicant friars in the 13th century after receiving a calling from God to "rebuild my church." Some 800 years later, St. Francis' followers are rebuilding his church in the ancient tradition of door-to-door begging that St. Francis championed - but with a very modern twist.

With interest in things Franciscan at an all-time high, the friars who run the San Francesco a Ripa church in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood launched a Kickstarter online fundraising campaign Tuesday to try to raise $125,000 for the restoration of the tiny cell where St. Francis stayed when he came to Rome to see the pope, The Associated Press has learned.

Rather than ask for funding from the Italian government, which owns the church and is responsible for its upkeep, the friars decided on this more democratic crowd-funding initiative, thinking it more in keeping with the Franciscan tradition of seeking alms for just what they need, spreading the faith as they beg and making sure the poor are the priority.

"It seemed important to us, very Franciscan even, to say that today perhaps public money should be destined to more urgent things, more important things like social issues that are affecting Italy and Europe at large," said the Rev. Stefano Tamburo, the 43-year-old guardian of the sanctuary who is spearheading the campaign. "So like the friars in the past would go asking for a piece of bread, today we are going to ask for a dollar, a euro, so we can make this place as it was in the time of St. Francis."

Kickstarter is one of dozens of crowd-funding websites that have sprung up in recent years to let people raise money for specific projects, with the catch being that the money is returned to donors if the target isn't met in a certain time frame. Kickstarter campaigns have included Spike Lee movies, funky restaurants, arts projects and business startups. Since it was founded in 2009, more than $1 billion has been pledged for 136,000 projects, though only about 44 percent of them were successfully completed, according to Kickstarter's website.

The Italian Interior Ministry's Fund for Buildings of Worship oversees the protection and patrimony of the church and 750 other churches across the Italian peninsula, including artistic marvels such as Santa Maria del Popolo with its famed Caravaggios in Rome and Santa Maria Novella in Florence, with frescoes by Giotto, Masaccio and Filippino Lippi. But with government budgets tight, the fund welcomes private sponsorship for restoration efforts.

The Franciscan renovation calls for a thorough cleaning of the plaster walls of the tiny cell where St. Francis stayed above the sacristy. The walls have been caked in centuries of candle wax and soot and are crumbling in places. In addition, the friars want to restore a bug-infested Baroque reliquary over the spot where St. Francis slept and install new electric and air ventilation systems to better accommodate the throngs of pilgrims who have been flocking to the sanctuary ever since the first pope named after Francis was elected a year ago.

"We've seen a significant increase in pilgrims, but also Romans who maybe didn't know about this place," Tamburo told the AP on a recent rainy Friday inside the cell. "We want to provide a high-quality service, not just open the doors but explain how Francis lived in this place, and how this place can speak to us about St. Francis today."

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