Of the 44 parishes in the archdiocese named particularly for women saints, only one is named for the patroness of automobile drivers — unusual, perhaps, in a region renowned for its dependency on cars.Born in Rome to wealthy parents, Francesca Bussa di Leoni (1384-1440) decided at 11 years old to be a nun, but her father arranged for a marriage — when she was 13. But her marriage was a happy one of 40 years, with six children and a relationship that allowed the saint to fulfill her desire for prayer, helping the poor and caring for the sick. She had the gift of miracles and ecstasy, the bodily vision of her guardian angel, and was remarkable for her humility, obedience and patience. Her last words were, “The angel has finished his task.”A legend portrays St. Frances of Rome as having an angel who went before her with a lantern to light her way when she traveled. Canonized in 1608 under Pope Paul V (her feast day is March 9), St. Frances remains one of the few saints linked to a particular city. Also the patroness of widows, her title as patroness of automobile drivers was bestowed by Pope Pius XI in 1925. No records remain as to why in 1904 the parish in Azusa was named in her honor. The newly established Tidings paper of July 20, 1895, reported that “it was a happy day for the Catholics in Azusa as Bishop George Montgomery celebrated the first Mass ever offered in the Canyon City.” For the next few years, priests from surrounding parishes, including San Gabriel Mission, celebrated Mass from time to time at Slausons’ Hall on the corner of Alameda and Center Streets. After parishes were established in nearby Pasadena, Pomona and Monrovia, the Azusa site became a parish in 1904, one of five established that year under the guidance of Bishop Thomas Conaty.Between 1904 and 1908 Fathers J. Steehy and Michael Geary said Mass twice a month and a building was constructed for $1,984 at the corner of Pasadena Avenue and Center Street (Foothill Boulevard). Father Geary became the first resident pastor on January 12, 1908, and built another church in Covina in 1912. But nothing else is known about St. Frances until 1925 when it is recorded that Father Peter J. Quinn rebuilt the original church and erected a rectory.During the next 26 years, little else is recorded about the parish except that seven pastors (all now deceased) served various terms. Father Anthony Reidy (1930) was pastor for 15 years at three other churches; Father Stephen Kiley (1931-34) was pastor in seven parishes; Father William McGinley (1934-35) headed six parishes; Father Daniel Sweeney (1935-38) had five pastorates; Msgr. Thomas Fogarty (1938-40) served 26 years as pastor of St. Brendan’s in L.A.; Father Patrick McGuiness (1940-44); and Msgr. Michael Healy (1944-50) headed St. Bernard, Bellflower for 25 years.In 1950 Father Albert Duggan, a native of Toronto, began his pastorate in Azusa but spent the first two years serving with the 40th Army Infantry Division in Japan and Korea where he received the Bronze Star and returned to the Reserve with the rank of Major. In his 26 years as pastor he built and paid for the church, school, rectory, confraternity center and found a house for the Benedictine Sisters. The first parish school opened in 1953, staffed by the Benedictine Sisters. In October 1960 Cardinal James Francis McIntyre blessed the new church that “reflects the sturdy qualities of the Sierra Madre Mountains that frame it — substantial, simple beauty, a lofty landmark before the community.” Father Duggan died in 1979 at age 70.For the next 15 years Msgr. Robert Jerome Stein, a native Angeleno, headed the parish and was known as an active community leader. He was a founding member of the Azusa Safe Community and founded the St. Frances Food Bank that assisted the needy and supplied 800 families with Christmas dinner and presents. A priest of the archdiocese for 35 years, he died in 1990 at age 61 from a stroke he suffered while marching in procession on Palm Sunday. “His humor lightened our burden, his friendliness lighted our way,” it was said of him at his funeral. Father Edward Landreau, born in Bellflower and an alumnus of Loyola University, was an associate for eight years during the term of Msgr. Stein, and was appointed pastor in 1990. Father Landreau was named pastor emeritus in 1998 and currently lives at the parish. Father David Granadino, a native Angeleno, served at the parish for four years and was the associate pastor for five years. Father Michael Sears, a native of Costa Mesa and a 1994 ordinand from St. John’s Seminary, served as administrator from 2003 to 2006, and is now pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Los Nietos.St. Frances’ current pastor is Father Gustavo Castillo, a native of Mexico who was ordained in 2001 from St. John’s — a good 90 minutes or so by car from the parish whose patroness guides all who come to worship.{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/0902/francesside/{/gallery}