Much as it was in 1877 when the first French Brothers reached Ireland, the Saint John of God Order’s care is modeled on the instinctive sympathy exemplified in the life of the Order’s founder, Saint John of God, writes Siobhán Tracey.
It is hard to imagine an Irish person who has not visited or known someone who has been cared for in a Saint John of God’s hospital or centre. But like so many venerable institutions that predate our State, we often assume that its role in Irish life was easily secured or even its presence here inevitable. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The life of Saint John of God himself was one of extraordinary struggle, adventure and hardship, but ultimately one of redemption and inspiration to others. The few brave Brothers from France who established the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God in Ireland in 1870 started in a remote location, with few resources, scant support of the clerical establishment and hardly even the language to communicate, as French-speaking Brothers in an area where Irish was widely spoken.
Saint John of God, in his lifetime, was Joao (or John) Duarte Cidade, born on 8 March in 1495 at Montemor-o-Novo in Portugal. His life does not fit easily into the template of the “lives of the great men”.
A boy who had to leave his parents behind at the tender age of eight, John was a homeless orphan in Spain before going to work as a shepherd. An incident in his military career saw him only narrowly avoiding the death penalty. He re-enlisted as a camp servant in the Spanish force leaving to fight the Turkish Army at Vienna in 1532.
A life of wandering ensued including a poignant return to his home to find that his parents had died. John then worked as a labourer in the Portuguese penal settlement of Ceuta in North Africa and lived as a pedlar of books in Granada giving what he made to the poor.
The turning point in his life was a sermon on Saint Sebastian’s Day in 1538 in which he experienced such an intense epiphany that onlookers thought him mad and brought him to an asylum, before he was rescued by the famous preacher who had given the sermon, Juan of Avila.
Sometime after, John founded his first hospital at Granada in Spain, where he served the sick and afflicted, practices which would, in the hands of his successor, revolutionise care for the poor and mentally ill. John’s distinctive cry for alms in the streets of Granada “Brothers and sisters, for the love of God, do good for yourselves by doing good for others” earned him the nick name “Juan de Dios” – John of God. He died, on his 55th birthday (and subsequently his feast day) on 8 March, 1550.
John of God was canonised by Pope Alexander VIII in 1690 and was declared heavenly patron of the sick, nurses, and of all the hospitals by Pope Leo XIII in 1898. His work continued and with the support of King Philip II, a hospital was founded at Madrid and several others in various Spanish towns and in Italy.
Twenty years after John’s death his followers petitioned the Vatican for recognition as a Religious Order of Brothers, with a small number of its members ordained priests to minister in our hospitals Saint Pius V approved the Order of the Brothers Hospitallers in 1572 under the rule of Saint Augustine. The Order spread rapidly into the other countries of Europe but it would be three hundred years before the Order came to Ireland.
The branch of the Hospitallers which would have the greatest influence on Ireland was the French Province. The first hospital of the Hospitallers in France was founded in Paris, in 1601, after Marie de Medici, Queen wife of Henry IV of France, brought five Brothers from her native Florence to Paris.