Born in the Abruzzi, Italy, in 1550, Camillus de Lellis, the son of a soldier, grew to be a hot-tempered giant, over six feet six inches tall and broad in proportion, with piercing black eyes. At the age of seventeen he enlisted in his father's regiment to fight against the Turks. At the last moment he was prevented from joining his troops by an ulcerous growth in his right leg, a painful, ugly problem that was to remain with him throughout his life. After another attempt to serve in the Venetian forces, in 1571 Camillus went to Rome and entered the hospital for incurables, San Giacomo, as a patient and servant. He was soon dismissed. "This young man is incorrigible, and completely unsuited to be an infirmarian," said the report on him. He had to return there several times, though, for the ulcer in his leg kept opening, and the only way in which he could have it attended to was by working in the hospital.

A little later, Camillus entered the service of Spain, but the expedition against Tunis, for which he enlisted, was called off and the fleet was taken out of commission. Depressed, demoralized, and out of work, Camillus drifted about until he came to Naples where he fell into the habit of compulsive gambling. His few possessions--his sword, his cloak, his shirt--were soon lost, and he was reduced to a state of penury. For a while Camillus lived by begging alms in the doorways of churches. Chastened by his penury and remembering a vow he had once made in a fit of remorse to join the Franciscans, Camillus contracted a job as a laborer on some Capuchins buildings. On Candlemas Day, when he was 25, he entered the novitiate of Capuchins but could not be professed because of his leg.

Once more Camillus returned to and was admitted to the hospital of San Giacomo, where he found his true vocation. Abandoning his attempts to become a Franciscan, at which he had tried and failed four times, he devoted himself to remedying the appalling conditions he found there. Encouraged by Saint Philip Neri, he resigned from San Giacomo, was ordained a priest, and together with two other staff members began the community that is now called, the Camillans, dedicated to help the sick, plague-ridden and dying. The brief rules he prescribed for his order required going daily to serve in the hospital, Santo Spirito. Camillus made sweeping reforms in the hospitals that were nothing short of revolutionary. His ideas were few and simple, but they were full of common sense and nobility of heart. The filth and squalor that had been a standard feature of hospitals were eliminated, and he himself would often get down on his knees and scrub the floor. New arrivals were washed, their beds were made regularly, the dirty linens were changed, wounds were dressed carefully, and for the first time the patients were separated into different wards according to the nature of their maladies. Moreover, from the moment of entry, each patient was given personal attention. Day and night, Camillus would go from bed to bed, listening to complaints, watching over the dying, giving Communion and Extreme Unction, making sure that a person was properly cured before being allowed to leave, and seeing to it that the food served was of good quality and properly cooked.

Gradually the seed grew into a mighty tree. On March 18, 1586, Pope Sixtus V approved the Camillans and the order received its distinctive habit--a black cloak with a red cross on the right shoulder. Soon afterwards they were given the hospice of the Magdalen near the Pantheon. Invited to Naples, Camillus with 12 companions founded a new house there. When galleys holding plague victims were forbidden to dock, Camillus and his members would embark to minister to the sick. The order grew rapidly and began to be known as the "Fathers of a Good Dying." To the three great vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Camillans added a fourth: "O Lord, I promise to serve the sick, who are Your sons and my brothers, all the days of my life, with all possible charity."

Adapted from Rabenstein, Land of Saints and Popes.