Here is the promised story on this fascinating mystery. Unfortunately, it is just a sketch, because I am still at my parents’ home in Iowa while my arm is mending, and the book I most need to consult is at the New York Public Library. I hope to compete it in the future.
Blessed Giacomo Villa (James the Almsgiver)
Blessed Giacomo was born in Città della Pieve, in Umbria, about 1270, son of Lucantonio and Mestiola Villa. A devout young boy, he frequently attended Mass. At the age of twelve, he was sent by his parents to Siena, where he studied letters and later law. Even at that time he was concerned about the poor and the sick; he volunteered in his free time at the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena.
After successly finishing his studies, Giacomo returned home. During Mass one day, he was struck by the words of Jesus in the Gospel: “If anyone comes to me without turning his back on his father and mother, his wife and his children, his brothers and sisters, indeed his very self, he cannot be my follower. In the same way, none of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his possessions.” (Luke 14:33). In a scene strikingly reminiscent of the call of St. Francis, Giacomo felt that these words were addressed to him, and so he left all and dedicated himself to the service of God and his neighbor. According to the earliest Life of him, (1) he studied for and was ordained to the priesthood. According to Franciscan sources, it was at this time also that he became a member of the Third Order. (2) He used his whole inheritance to restore the abandoned church of San Giovanni Battista and the nearby hospital of Santi Filippo e Giacomo at the Porta Vecciana, which had fallen into disrepair, and there he received the poor of the town. He fed them, washed their feet, treated their wounds, and cared for their needs. He also used his legal skills to defend them against the rich in lawsuits.
One day, as the story is usually told, when going through some some old papers and deeds in the hospital, Giacomo discovered that some years back, the bishop of Chiusi had usurped some land belonging to it. He asked the bishop for the rights of the poor to be restored to them; the bishop refused. Giacomo then took the bishop to court; the case dragged on for several years, as the courts in Città della Pieve and Chiusi ruled for the bishop, but Giacomo appealed to the Church’s highest court in Rome–and won.
The bishop then invited Giacomo to come to Chiusi on the pretence of desiring to resolve their differences. They met at the episcopal residence for dinner, and the bishop gave every indication of friendliness. But the prelate had secretly arranged to have assassins attack Giacomo on his way back to Città della Pieve. These men lay in wait for him at the crossroads near Moiano and Maranzano in the locale called Palazzo, rushed on him, and killed him. They then dragged his body some distance from the road, and hid it underneath a pear tree, covering it with branches and thorns. This took place on January 15, 1304.
When Giacomo did not return, his colleagues at the hospital began a search for him, but they found nothing. Several days later, some shepherds were crossing the field, and saw that the pear tree was blooming, even though it was the middle of winter. When they went to investigate, they heard the saint’s voice telling them he had been murdered and asking them to uncover his body. Looking under the branches, they discovered the corpse and ran to notify the townspeople.
Almost immediately after the discovery of the body, according to the traditional account, a dispute broke out between the cities of Chiusi, Perugia, and Citta della Pieve over where the martyr should be buried. After much consultation, they put his body on a cart, yoked to two oxen, and let them loose to go wherever they wanted. The oxen went straight to Città della Pieve, where the saint’s body was buried in the church of the hospital. In 1468 or 1478, depending on which source you consult, Giacomo’s body was transferred to a new tomb, and found to be incorrupt. The Servites were given pastoral care of the church and considered Giacomo to be their saint. In 1806 the Sacred Congregation of Rites approved the cult of Blessed Giacomo and in 1846 Pope Pius IX permitted the Servite Order to celebrate a Mass and Office in his honor.
There is now a movement in Bl. Giacomo’s home region to obtain a formal beatification for him, and this has led to an attempt to solve several unsettled questions about his life, including whether he was a Franciscan tertiary or a Servite tertiary or oblate. The only evidence the Servites offered to show he was a member of their order was that at his translation in 1478, his body was said to have been dressed in the black Servite habit. (3) On the other hand, Mariano of Florence, a Franciscan writing in the 1520’s, said that he had personally spoken to people who were at the translation and who said he was dressed in a grey Franciscan habit. (4) None of this is decisive evidence.
A Servite writer notes: “Some letters, documents and old paintings of Blessed Giacomo seem to indicate that he was not only a Servite tertiary, but that he was also a member of the Franciscan Third Order and an Oblate of the Hospice of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena. At that time it was not unusual for an individual to belong to several such groups.” (5)
But the really intriguing controversy is the one over Bl. Giacomo’s death. To be precise, was the bishop really responsible for his murder? And who was the bishop? (He is apparently unnamed in the earliest sources). Or was someone else guilty? Stefano Bistarini, a local historian from Chiusi, author of Picola nota sulla morte del beato Giacomo Villa [A Little Note on the death of Blessed Giacomo Villa], has done a great deal of research, and come up with some new documents and a new theory about the saint’s death. His book was announced in April 2014, but has apparently not yet appeared; I do have an article he wrote, which gives some details of his theory, though not everything is clear. (6)
First, he offers some new dates: he believes that Giacomo was born around 1255 and that his murder actually took place not in 1304, but in 1286, though the article doesn’t state his reasons for this belief. He also discovered that there was once a little church called San Jacopo de Palatijs or San Giacomo dei Palazzi, near where the murder took place. He believes that, in contradiction to the traditional account, Giacomo was originally buried close to the spot where he was killed, and the little church was later built over the grave. He believes the body was only transferred to Città della Pieve sometime between 1313 and 1317. But his most startling claim is this: he can find no evidence that any of the bishops during Giacomo’s lifetime, including the man who was bishop at the time of his death, Pietro IV, was ever involved in a lawsuit of the type described in the legend. He believes that the man with whom Giacomo had the dispute over the land, and who sent men to murder him, was a powerful lord of Chiusi named Rimbottuccio Manenti.
Now we have a genuine murder mystery. I’m really intrigued. Unfortunately, Bistarini didn’t state his reasons for fingering this particular suspect out of many possible ones. Because when you think about it, someone who aids the poor against the rich, as Giacomo did, can attract a lot of enemies. I’m sure I’ll learn more when I read the book, and I’ll report more on it then.
(1) This life is in Italian, but I don’t know any further details. The substance of it is preserved in later works. It seems to be available in Fiorenzo Canuti, ed. Documenti per la vita e per il culto del B. Giacomo Villa di Citta della Pieve (Perugia: Tip. G. Donnini, 1952), but I have not yet been able to consult it.
(2) B. Mazzara, Leggendario francescano, parte prima (Venice, 1676), p. 96. Wadding (see note 4), seems to have believed he was a Friar Minor.
(3) See Arcangelo Gianio, Annalium Sacri Ordinis Servorum B. Mariae Virginis a suae Institutionis exordio. Centuriae Quatuor. I, (Luca: Marescandoli, 1719), c. xvi, p. 529.
(4) Mariano is quoted in Luke Wadding, OFM, Annales Minorum an. 1304, no. III (Rome: Bernabo, 1733), vol. vi, p. 34.
(5) http://www.servidimaria.net/sitoosm/en/spiritualita/agiografia/beati/giacomo_pieve/liturgia/ index.htm#Reflection
(6) S. Bistarini, “La Storia di Giacomo di Antonio.” Il Moggio, periodico di Città della Pieve, May 2013, p. 6. (Also available online at http://ilmoggiocdp.wordpress.com/2013/05/27/versione-modificata/).