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In nursing history, certain names or groups seem to predominate in the literature. Women who contributed to nursing include Fabiola, Florence Nightingale, Dorothea Lynde Dix, Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Tubman, Linda Richards and Clara Barton. Prominent groups include religious orders of sisters, the nursing orders during the Crusades and the Knights of St. Lazarus.

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However, few of us know about the life of Camillus De Lellis, who focused his efforts on preparing nurses to care for the poor, the imprisoned and the dying. After a rowdy early life, he experienced a major conversion, eventually founding a religious order devoted to the sick.


Camillus De Lellis, who lived from 1550 to 1614, was born when his mother, Camilla, was sixty years old. His father, Giovanni, was preoccupied with war and often away. Camilla had a vivid dream before Camillus's birth. She saw her baby, his breast marked with a cross, followed by a troop of children similarly marked.1 She was somewhat pessimistic about the dream; she imagined that the crosses represented dreary omens of some great disaster to her house and family. Little did she know that the son she bore would become a true warrior in the army of Christ after being a soldier of fortune, inveterate gambler and wandering beggar.


With a violent temper to match his formidable six-foot, six-inch frame, Camillus detested school, became addicted to gambling and seldom prayed or received the sacraments. Gambling, complicated by his uncontrollable temper, became a way of life. Camillus and his father fell ill while fighting against the Turks six years after the death of his mother. Giovanni De Lellis died, repentant for his sins, leaving his son the only worldly goods he had left, a sword and a dagger.


After his father's death, Camillus was wounded during the Venetian War. He sought a cure for his wound at the hospital of St. Giacomo, offering to work for room and board.2 The superintendent assigned him to serve the sick but, because of his temper and passion for gambling, he ignored their suffering and neglected their needs. Needless to say, the superintendent dismissed him even before his leg was healed. Camillus returned to war.


After reenlisting, a memorable voyage from Palermo to Naples changed the course of his life. Most of his fellow soldiers died at sea during a fierce storm. Camillus and a few others survived. When they finally arrived on land, Camillus and his companions were discharged. He continued to gamble, eventually losing all he owned. After begging on the street, he was offered a job as a laborer in a Capuchin monastery. There he finally realized that he was born for something more in life.


After his conversion, he vowed to become a Franciscan. However, his hopes were soon dashed when the brothers dismissed him because of his recurring leg ulcer. Later, after seeking treatment at a hospital, he entreated the order to accept him again. The Capuchin Order accepted him back, and he took the name Brother Christopher. By working in the Franciscan monastery, he was able to subdue his temptations. His self-confidence increased, and he endeared himself to others. He discovered that the more he gave himself to helping others, the happier he became.


St. Philip Neri had warned him that he should not go back to the Franciscans, and as expected, Camillus was dismissed when his wound reopened. Not giving up, he returned to Rome, resolved to devote himself forever to the sick. After being refused twice by the Capuchin Order of Franciscans, he appealed to the Observantines, who also denied him entrance because of his infected wound.


Camillus returned to San Giacomo and was appointed superintendent of a hospital that had no trained permanent staff of nurses. Patients were badly mistreated; some were even brought to the mortuary while still alive. Needless to say, Camillus faced a huge challenge, but he persevered and cared for those that others would not approach.


Religious orders, such as the Jesuits, were accustomed to sending their young men to visit the hospitalized and began to choose San Giacomo because of Camillus and his charitable acts on behalf of the sick. He never omitted any act of charity that would alleviate the pain of the sick poor. It is said that there was no home that he loved so well as a hospital. It was there that he found his consolation.


Since his mind was preoccupied with the idea of serving the sick and the desire to enter religious life, he began to picture what he was doing with the sick as a future religious order. However, he had to be ordained to accomplish this goal, which would necessitate completing his education. Although he was sharp witted and had an excellent memory, he had had no formal schooling.


At age thirty-two, he began his academic studies at the Roman College. His worst subject was philosophy, in which he was placed in the lowest class with twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys. He developed humility and patience as the boys mocked him. After completing his studies, to be ordained he also had to provide evidence that he could support himself. Thanks to an unexpected benefactor, Camillus was ordained and was able to start his order with a small band of men.


After taking up the most arduous tasks, the company soon became known as Ministers of the Sick. They followed Camillus's example of serving the sick in hospitals, in homes, in jails and on the streets. He encouraged his brothers to nurse the sick as a mother might nurse her only child who was ill. In a true sense, Camillus recognized the importance of whole-person care.


When Camillus was appointed superior of his order, he requested that members of the order wear cloaks and a red cross on the right side of their cassocks to distinguish them from other groups. He and his companions not only bore the cross upon their habits, but, with the true Franciscan love of poverty and humiliation, they bore it in their hearts, setting out to assist those in need.3 His mother's dream was finally fulfilled.


Epidemics, plagues and poverty were common in the late sixteenth century. Not content with treating only patients in a hospital, Camillus and his nursing brothers sought out the sick and dying in the poorest quarters of Rome. They distributed food and clothing, as well as nursing care. Camillus felt that good nursing depended on love; therefore, the more it was independent of wages the better it would be.


Camillus originally wanted charity and humility to be the hallmarks of his order. The brothers were to take the lowest places and to work with cases that terrified paid servants. However, not all agreed with him. They felt it was absurd to withdraw their direct spiritual and physical care of the sick to scrub floors and do things that others could do better. He compromised, even though he felt that they should do it all. Camillus even loved to cook small delicacies for hard-to-please convalescent patients.


The man who once was a trooper and a gambler now gave constant nursing care to beggars, prisoners and anyone in need. He declared, "A servant of the sick without charity is like a body without a soul."4 He displayed kindness to any living creature, while maintaining his keen sense of humor. While walking with a young novice whose head ached violently from the heat, Camillus responded, "Come closer to me. I am very tall, and my shadow will keep the sun off you."5


In addition to his ongoing obstinate leg wound, he also had a hernia, two large corns on the soles of his feet, renal colic and kidney stones. However, at sixty-two, he continued to persevere and see Christ in the sick while ministering to them during the terrible famine of 1612. When doctors were discussing a new treatment for his ailments, he responded, "Listen, I have had so many medicines-in Naples, in Genoa, in Rome-and none of them have done me any good. God does not want me to be cured. I ought to suffer a little, at any rate, at the end of my life."6


When his end came at the age of sixty-five, forty years after his conversion, he stretched out his arms in the form of a cross, pronounced his thanksgiving for the blood of Christ, and died.7The masses called out that the "father of the poor is dead."8 In 1886 Pope Leo XIII declared Camillus De Lellis to be the patron of all the sick and those who nurse them.


1 Edmund Curley, St. Camillus (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1962), 29. [Context Link]


2 Ibid., 41. [Context Link]


3 Alban Goodier, Saints for Sinners (London: Sheed and Ward, 1945), 131. [Context Link]


4 C. C. Martindale, Life of Saint Camillus (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1946), 114. [Context Link]


5 Ibid., 138. [Context Link]


6 Ibid., 138. [Context Link]


7 Ibid., 137. [Context Link]


8 Sanzio Cicatelli, St. Camillus of Lellis (Quezon City, Philippines: Camillian Publications, 1980), 193. [Context Link]