St. Camillus de Lellis turned from a life as a soldier and gambler to become a priest and the founder of an order dedicated to caring for the sick. He is the patron saint of hospitals, nurses, and the sick.
The order he founded in 1585 continues to minister to the sick to this day, operating large hospitals in major cities, mobile clinics in some of the most remote and inhospitable places on earth, and ministering to those affected by man-made and natural disasters worldwide.
St. Camillus was born during 1550 in the Abruzzo region of Naples in present-day Italy.
His mother died when he was 13, and following in the footsteps of his father Giovanni de Lellis, an army captain, Camillus joined the army and fought in various wars throughout the Italian peninsula until 1574. He distinguished himself with his violent temper and reckless habits.
Camillus contracted a wound in his leg that would define him for the rest of his life.
Sources disagree on exactly how and when he was wounded: the Camillans say he was hurt during a military engagement, and the wound became infected. Other sources say it was caused by an illness.
Regardless, the injury— which never fully healed— would change the course of his life. He entered St. Giacomo hospital for treatment, but was eventually turned out of the hospital because of his quarrelsome attitude- he picked fights often, and with anyone.
After his father died, Camillus’ gambling problem worsened. By the time he was 24, he had gambled away everything he had.
Humbled and penniless, he took a job working as a laborer at a Capuchin friary. It was there, in 1575, that he heard one day a sermon preached by one of the Franciscans— possibly along with a one-on-one spiritual conversation with the priest— that moved him to conversion.
He tried to enter the Capuchin novitiate three times, but each time the wound in his leg, coupled with his lack of education, forced him to leave.
He went to Rome and entered the hospital of St. Giacomo, and met St. Phillip Neri, who would become his confessor. Camillus had no way to pay for his hospital stay, so he began ministering to the sick and dying. Through his persistent work, Camillus eventually became superintendent of the hospital.
While at the hospital, he was studying with the Jesuits, and though he still occasionally gambled and fought, he eventually completed his studies for the priesthood and was ordained at age 34, in 1584.
Motivated by his work in the hospital, Father Camillus assembled a group of Catholic religious and lay followers to help tend to the needs of suffering patients, calling his group the “Servants of the Sick.”
The Servants would be summoned to hospitals, and to prisons and private houses, to tend to the needs of the sick and dying.
In 1586, Pope Sixtus V approved Camillus’ group, and in 1591 Pope Gregory XIV confirmed the Servants of the Sick— with the name changed to the ‘Order of the Ministers of the Infirm’— as a religious order. Members of the order wear a red cross on their black cassocks and capes, which Camillus reportedly said was to “frighten the devil.”
In addition to the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, members of the order take a vow of unfailing service to the sick, even at risk to their own lives. The order, today made up of priests and brothers, is often known simply as the “Camillans.”
Two congregations of the Camillans for women were created in the 19th century, and secular institutes were established in the 20th century.
Camillus himself was totally devoted to the poor and sick, and though he himself was very ill, he would spend time with the sick even while unable to walk, by crawling from bed to bed to see if the other patients needed help. Upon learning that he himself was incurably ill, Camillus responded: “I rejoice in what has been told me. We shall go into the house of the Lord.”
Upon receiving the Eucharist one last time, he said: “O Lord, I confess that I am the most wretched of sinners, most undeserving of thy favor; but save me by thy infinite goodness. My hope is placed in thy divine mercy by thy precious blood.”
Camillus died on July 14, 1614. Benedict XIV canonized him in 1746, and in 1886, Leo XIII proclaimed him patron of all hospitals and of the sick.
Pius XI later named him— along with Saint John of God— one of the two main co-patrons of nurses and nursing associations in 1930.
St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint, is celebrated on July 14 in the United States, thus St. Camillus’ feast day is celebrated on July 18 in the US.
Pope Francis met with men and women religious from the Camillian Charismatic Family in March 2019. He praised those present for their work of “loving and generous donation to the sick, carrying out a precious mission, in the Church and in society, alongside the suffering.”
Through fidelity to their founder, and by listening to and accompanying those experiencing poverty and suffering today, the pope said, the Camillians “will know how to make light shine, always new, on the gift received; and many young people the world over will be able to feel attracted by and to join with you, to continue to bear witness to God’s tenderness.”