Francis Possenti, born in Assisi on March 1, 1838, was seriously ill as a child, and many illnesses recurred throughout his life. He grew up to be a superb horseman, hunter, and excellent marksman. As a young man, Francesco Possenti had been the fanciest dresser in town as well as the best dancer. Engaged to two girls at the same time and a great party-goer, he caught the attention of many people in his day, but especially women.
During his school years, he became very sick, Mary came to him in a vision, and he promised that if he got better, he would dedicate his life to God. St. Gabriel Possenti got better and forgot about it. He got sick a second time, had another vision, and made the same promise, but again got well and forgot his promise. During a church procession a great banner of Our Lady, Help of Christians, was being carried. The eyes of Our Lady looked straight at him and he heard the words: “Keep your promise.” Shaken and in fear of his soul, he remembered his promise, changed his life completely, and entered the Passionists.
Given his lifestyle, he shocked his family by announcing after his graduation that he was going to become a Passionist monk. No one believed him and expected him back within a few weeks. He stayed in the monastery, to their disbelief. One day Garibaldi’s mercenaries swept down through Italy ravaging villages. As the marauders attacked, the monks prayed in the chapel and Possenti, who took the name Gabriel, heard a young woman screaming in terror. Not about to allow the assailants to do any harm to a woman, he genuflected, left the chapel, approached the man, and pulled the gun out of the marauder’s holster and held it to his head until he freed the woman.
After freeing a young woman from a would-be rapist, St. Gabriel Possenti confronted the onrushing brigands waving revolvers. To demonstrate his excellence in marksmanship, he fired at a lizard that happened to be running across the road and blew its head off it with one shot. After this, he was able to take command of the situation and ran the entire band of mercenaries out of town. Not one human was harmed by Possenti while he saved the city.
Those who were with Gabriel when he died on February 27, 1862 of tuberculosis reported that at the moment of death, he sat up in bed and his face became radiant as he reached out to an otherwise unseen figure that was entering the room. It was the opinion of his spiritual director, Father Norbert that Saint Gabriel had seen the Virgin Mary at the very moment of his death.
He is remembered for his deep veneration for the Mother of Sorrows and his unwavering patience throughout his deadly disease. In 1908 he was beatified and canonized in 1920. He is the patron of Catholic youth in Italy. His grave still attracts many pilgrims.