EARLY HISTORY OF THE ORDER OF ST. CAMILLUS SERVANTS OF THE SICK
St. Camillius de Lellis, Founder and Patron
He skipped school. Gambled. Fought. Born to lose? Far from it. Born to serve his brothers and sisters through his later dedication to the sick and the dying. Camillus de Lellis was canonized in 1746 and later declared patron saint of the sick, nurses and of hospitals.
His life marked a turning point in medical care as we know it today. It also marked the beginning of a brotherhood that now spans the world and provides leadership in healthcare through Christian charity and love. Here is the following story of Camillus …the man…the saint…and the Order.
On May 25, 1550, Camilla Compelli de Laureto – at almost sixty years of age – gave birth to Camillus de Lellis in Bucchianico, Italy. Camillus was welcomed with great joy, also with much anxiety, for his birth was preceded by a strange dream that profoundly disturbed his mother.
She saw her son with a cross on his chest leading other men with a similar cross. “An ominous cross,” she thought, for it was the sign of those condemned to death in the gallows. Her son, she feared, would end up a leader of a gang of criminals.
The saintly woman died with that anguish in her heart when the boy was only thirteen. Camillus’ father, Giovanni de Lellis, an army captain, paid no attention to his wife’s dreams. But the wild boyhood of his son, given over to gambling and rowdy companions seems to have supported those fears. Camillus followed his father in a military career, and over the course of many years, lived recklessly with a compulsion for gambling. A leg injury resulting in numerous hospitalizations caused him a great deal of grief.
He resigned himself to a life as a construction worker at the monastery of the Capuchins in Manfredonia, Italy, after leaving the military. The Friars gradually discovered the natural goodness of the man beneath the rough exterior, and in 1575, at the age of 25, Camillus experienced a spiritual conversion and resolved to reform his life and dedicate himself to the service of God.
Still afflicted by his leg wound, Camillus de Lellis entered St. James’ Hospital in Rome, where he would live and work among his brothers, the sick. One night he had the inspiration to assemble a group of good men willing to dedicate themselves to the sick. Later on he took up studies for the priesthood and led an army of “Servants of the Sick” against the plague and epidemics that infested Rome. Ordained at the age of 34, Camillus might be what we today sometimes refer to as a “delayed vocation”.
Camillus chose a red cross as the distinguishing badge for the members of his Order to wear upon their black cassocks, and he taught his volunteers that the hospital was a house of God, a garden where the voices of the sick were music from heaven. Once when he was discouraged, he heard the consoling words from the crucifix, “This is my work, not yours”.
After leading the movement throughout Italy, Camillus died on July 14, 1614. In 1742, Pope Benedict XIV proclaimed Camillus de Lellis blessed; in 1746 he canonized him, calling him the “Founder of a new school of charity”.
This new school saw the sick in a new light. In Camillus’ own words, “The poor and the sick are the heart of God. In serving them, we serve Jesus the Christ.” Wherever the sick person was, there God was, and it became a place of celebration. The bed of the sick became an altar, the hospital a church.
Through the remainder of the 1800’s – despite frequent epidemics that decimated the numbers of the “Servants of the Sick” – the Order grew and spread across Europe, and the rest of the world.
So typical was the expression “To serve the sick, even with danger to one’s own life” that it became the Order's fourth vow. This total dedication regardless of mortal danger became the heart of the Order’s constitution and the formula of Profession. St. Camillus’ feast day is now celebrated on July 18th in the United States.
“We want to assist the sick with the same love that a mother has for her only sick child.” – St Camillus de Lellis
St. Camillus continues to inspire because of his undeniable human nature. A “delayed” vocation, he did not hear the calling to serve the sick until well into his 20’s. And until that point, he lived a decidedly unsaintly life. Many say that his festering leg wound was God’s way of getting through to the wayward youth. The affliction opened Camillus’ eyes to the sad plight of the sick; it also delivered him to the doorstep of his future life’s work: the hospital. A “giant” in stature and charity, his spirit is very much present today in the life of each Camillian.
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