The history of St.Isidore's College begins with Friar Luke Wadding.

Born in Waterford in 1588, Luke Wadding was obliged to go abroad to get a proper Catholic education because of religious persecution in Ireland.

He entered the Franciscan Order in Lisbon. One of his main ideas from the start was to vindicate the Order against those accusing the Franciscans and their founder of being opposed to learning.

He acquired such fame as a theologian that he was chosen by the King of Spain as theological adviser to a delegation sent to Rome to petition Pope Paul V for the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception BVM.

On arriving in Rome in 1618, he found that little was known there about Ireland, and the hard conditions being suffered by the Irish people. Moreover, owing to the activity of hostile people, the Irish in Rome were ignored, and often disparaged. Wadding gradually succeeded in changing all of this.

Because of his love of simplicity, he was allowed to live not at the magnificent Spanish Embassy but at the small Franciscan convent of San Pietro in Montorio on the Janiculum Hill, not far from the Villa Spada now the Irish Embassy.

The Irish Chieftains Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone (+1616), his son, Hugh Baron of Dungannon (+1609) and Rory O'Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell (+1608) are buried also in San Pietro in Montorio. They were forced to escape from Ireland after leading a military resistance, without success, against the forces of Elizabeth I of England. The earls were honourably received by Pope Paul V on their arrival in Rome.

The Franciscan Minister General asked Wadding to take responsibility for a small unfinished Church and convent in Rome, dedicated to the recently canonised Spanish farmer-saint and patron of agriculture, St. Isidore of Madrid. The building was saddled with debts, but Wadding agreed. He was granted a free hand to set up a house of studies there for Irish Franciscans.  With the help of benefactors - they included all the reigning pontiffs of the period besides many cardinals, princes and ambassadors - he remodelled and added to the existing edifice and finished building the Church. In this way, St. Isidore's of the Franciscans came into being and was recognised as a house of recollection and studies under Wadding's rectorship by the Bull of Pope Urban VIII in 1625.

St Isidore was kept as patron, St Patrick as co-patron.  From the beginning Wadding was committed to studies, and he initiated the large Library in St.Isidores, with its patrimony of valuable manuscripts and books dating back to 1400 and earlier.

Since then - except for two short periods during the Napoleonic occupation, and then only partially - St Isidore’s has never passed out of Irish hands. During the Napoleonic years, the Guardian, James MacCormack, saved the library and archives. For a time, the college building was taken over by a German painter, Overbeck, and his Nazarine school of painters. This was how the street came to be called Via degli Artisti.  On it one finds St. Isidore’s and, formerly also, the original Irish (or Ludovisian) College, for secular seminarians, likewise built by Luke Wadding.

Luke Wadding was rector of St. Isidore's for thirty years. During this time, in addition to founding the Irish College for secular clergy in Rome, he played a great part in the counter-reformation that was begun by the Council of Trent and put into practice by Pope St. Pius V. Wadding's fame as a writer largely rests on his edition of the works of Duns Scotus, the medieval Oxford philosopher and defender of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, defined by Pope St. Pius IX. But his greatest literary achievement was the Annales Ordinis Minorum, a history of the Franciscan Order from its foundation. Wadding died before finishing the work which was continued by others. He did much for the Irish cause in Rome, and it was largely due to his influences that the Feast of St. Patrick was included in the Church's universal liturgical calendar.

Wadding also published a complete annotated edition of the Writings of St.Francis of Assisi. This is a pioneer work constantly quoted by scholars and students of Franciscan history and spirituality.

Inspired by its founder, St.Isidores went far beyond its original purpose.  It not only became a centre for Irish nationalist exiles, including the group of exiles Wadding had gathered round him, but also a centre of learning and culture, and a centre of missionary activity known thoughout Europe.  Luke Wadding was considered by many Ireland’s first ambassador to the Holy See.

The chief object of St. Isidore's College was never forgotten: the training of missionary friars to keep the faith alive at home. Many gave their lives in so doing, among them Dermot (Francis) O'Sullivan of Kerry and Patrick Fleming (he suffered in Prague), Eugene O'Cahan from Clare, Thaddeus (Bonaventure) O'Carrighy, Denis O'Nelan of Country Clare and Richard Synnot (who suffered a violent death in Wexford). The missionaries travelled to Ireland in secret and in disguise, living in the utmost hardship, sometimes in hill-cabins and caves, enduring hunger and cold.

Prince Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charles, the Young Pretender in exile, had close relations with the Franciscans of St. Isidore's. He was given the Last Sacraments by the Rector, Fr. Michael McCormack, when he was dying in 1788.

During the 19th century, St.Isidores sent many missionaries to Australia.  Fr. Geoghegan, who became first Bishop of Adelaide, built the first Catholic Church in Melbourne.

St. Isidore's escaped suppression and destruction during both World Wars.. It remains today one of the best preserved examples of 17th century architecture of its kind in Rome. A small cloister still recalls the original Spanish foundation.

The larger cloister built by Wadding is filled with paintings by the Franciscan artist Giovanni Antonio Sguary of Padua.

In the 'Aula Magna' (Great Hall), beneath a fresco depicting Luke Wadding with some of his early companions, is a slab recalling that Cardinal Corsini came here on the Feast of St Patrick in 1737, as his predecessors had done, to be installed as Cardinal Protector of the Kingdom of Ireland. The Great Hall was decorated in 1672 to honour the Immaculate Conception. Paintings pay tribute to Blessed Duns Scotus and St. Bonaventure, who like St. Thomas Aquinas held that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, though true and always believed, could not be proven.

As one enters the Church, one sees on either side of the main door paintings of St. Patrick and St. Brigid, Patron and Patroness of Ireland. Above these are copies of 8th century inscriptions in old Irish taken from the martyrology of Aengus, the Culdee (Céile Dé - amicus Dei).

The interior of the church contains several good paintings, of which the best are those by Carlo Maratta (1663) - notably his well-known Immaculate Conception, in a frame of roses carved by Bernini and supported by marble carved cherubim. The main altarpiece depicting St. Isidore, the Farmer, is by Andrea Sacchi. St. Patrick preaching to the Irish and banishing reptiles from the island is by an eighteenth century master-decorator.

The mortal remains of many Irish patriots and scholars, exiled for their religion, are buried in the crypt below the Church. For three centuries it was the crypt of the Irish in Rome. Their names are recorded on tombs and paving-stones. Cardinal Corsini is buried there, and Luke Wadding himself - also James MacCormack and, among others Aodh Mac Aingil (Hugh McCaughwell) known to scholars and experts as Ireland's most outstanding theologian of the times. MacAingil taught philosophy and theology for fourteen years at St. Anthony's College Leuven, and was consecrated Archbishop of Armagh, but he died in Rome in 1626 before setting out for his See. He wrote also religious poetry and prose in the Irish language.

Opposite the altar of St. Francis is a recumbent effigy of Octavia Catherine Bryan, an 18 year old Irish girl, who caught a fever and died during a visit to Rome in 1864. She was the daughter of Colonel George Bryan, prominent in the Catholic Emancipation Movement. John Henry Newman, the future cardinal, but then a deacon studying in Rome as a convert from Anglicanism, was asked to preach his first sermon as a Catholic at the funeral of Colonel Bryan's daughter. He records the event in his diary.

Above the door at one end of the College portico, St.Patrick's famous dictum is inscribed, enjoining obedience to the Holy See, best known for its last line implying that to be a Christian is therefore to be Roman.