Saint John of God was born João Duarte Cidade (Portuguese form, the Spanish form is João Cidade Duarte) in Montemor-o-Novo, now in the District of Évora, Kingdom of Portugal, the son of André Cidade and Teresa Duarte, a once-prominent family that was impoverished but had great religious faith. One day, he heard a visiting Spanish priest speak of adventures in the new world with the discovery of America. That very night he ran away from home to travel with the priest and never saw his parents again. According to his original biography, his mother died from grief soon after this and his father joined the Franciscan Order.
The young João soon found himself a homeless orphan in the streets of Oropesa, near Toledo, Spain. There, in a foreign land, he had no one to care for him, nothing on which to live and he had to be content with whatever food he could find. He was eventually taken in by a man called Francisco Mayoral and the boy settled down as a shepherd caring for his sheep in the countryside until he was 27.
The farmer was so pleased with João’s strength and diligence that he wanted him to marry his daughter and to become his heir. Feeling pressure to marry the manager’s daughter, whom he loved as a sister, João left to join the Spanish army in the war against France. As a soldier, he was hardly a model of holiness, taking part in the gambling, drinking, and pillaging that his comrades enjoyed. One day he was accused of being involved in the theft. He was condemned to death, and that would have been his fate had not some more tolerant officer intervened to win his pardon.
Disillusioned by this turn of events after what he felt was faithful military service, João returned to the farm in Oropesa. As a shepherd he had plenty of time to contemplate what God might want of his life. It was during this period of his life that João is said to have been granted the vision of the Infant Jesus, Who bestowed on him the name by which he was later known, John of God, also bidding him to go to Granada. There he was so deeply impressed by the preaching of Blessed John of Avila that he distributed his worldly goods and engaged in a public beating of himself, begging mercy and wildly repenting for his past life and calling on God for mercy. At the age of 42 João’s sanity was doubted by the people and he was dealt with as a madman.
He was incarcerated in the area of the Royal Hospital reserved for the mentally ill and received the treatment of the day, which was to be segregated, chained, flogged, and starved. João was visited by John of Avila, who advised him to be more actively involved in tending to the needs of others rather than in enduring personal hardships. João then made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Extremadura, where it is said he experienced a vision of Mary, who encouraged him to work with the poor. He gained peace of heart, and shortly after left the hospital to begin work among the poor.
He established a house where he wisely tended to the needs of the sick poor, at first doing his own begging. But, excited by the saint’s great work and inspired by his devotion, many people began to back him up with money and provisions. Among them were the archbishop and marquis of Tarifa.
One night, the saint heard that the Royal Hospital of Granada was on fire. When he rushed to the scene, he saw that people were just standing there watching the fire burn. All the patients were inside the burning building. This non-action was unthinkable to St. John, and he rushed inside, leading all the patients to safety.
Once he knew that all the patients were safe, he ran back into the building and started throwing items such as blankets and mattresses out the windows of the hospital. In his mission, the saint knew the importance of these goods for caring for the sick. He wanted to salvage as much as possible.
Another time, St. John experienced a heavenly vision when he found a dying beggar on the streets of Granada. St. John carried the man to the hospital, and began washing the beggar’s feet. While doing so, the man became transfigured with a shining light and brightness enveloped both himself and St. John. Later as St. John was walking through the hospital alone, patients saw such a bright light surrounding him that they thought he was on fire. He had a difficult time convincing the patients that all was well.
Behind Saint John’s outward acts of total concern and love for Christ’s sick poor was a deep interior prayer life which was reflected in his spirit of humility. These qualities attracted helpers who, 20 years after John’s death, formed the Brothers Hospitallers, now a worldwide religious order. He became ill after 10 years of service, but tried to disguise his ill health. He began to put the hospital’s administrative work into order and appointed a leader for his helpers. The saint died under the care of a spiritual friend and admirer, Lady Ana Ossorio.