Camillus de Lellis was born on May 25, 1550, at Bucchianico (now in Abruzzo, then part of the Kingdom of Naples). His mother, Camilla Compelli de Laureto, was nearly fifty when she gave birth to him. His father was an officer in both the Neapolitan and French royal armies[ and was seldom home. Camillus had his father’s temper and, due to her age and retiring nature, his mother felt unable to control him as he grew up. She died in 1562. As a consequence he grew up neglected by the family members who took him in after her death. Tall for his age, at 16 Camillus joined his father in the Venetian army and fought in a war against the Turks.
Humanly speaking, Camillus was not a likely candidate for sainthood. His mother died when he was a child, his father neglected him, and he grew up with an excessive love for gambling. At 17, he was afflicted with a disease of his leg that remained with him for life. In Rome he entered the San Giacomo Hospital for Incurables as both patient and servant, but was dismissed for quarrelsomeness after nine months. He served in the Venetian army for three years.
Then in the winter of 1574, when he was 24, Camillus gambled away everything he had—savings, weapons, literally down to his shirt. He accepted work at the Capuchin friary at Manfredonia, and was one day so moved by a sermon of the superior that he began a conversion that changed his life. He entered the Capuchin novitiate, but was dismissed because of the apparently incurable sore on his leg. After another stint of service at San Giacomo, he came back to the Capuchins, only to be dismissed again, for the same reason.
Again, back at San Giacomo, his dedication was rewarded by his being made superintendent. Camillus devoted the rest of his life to the care of the sick. Along with Saint John of God he has been named patron of hospitals, nurses, and the sick. With the advice of his friend Saint Philip Neri, he studied for the priesthood and was ordained at the age of 34. Contrary to the advice of his friend, Camillus left San Giacomo and founded a congregation of his own. As superior, he devoted much of his own time to the care of the sick.
Charity was his first concern, but the physical aspects of the hospital also received his diligent attention. Camillus insisted on cleanliness and the technical competence of those who served the sick. The members of his community bound themselves to serve prisoners and persons infected by the plague as well as those dying in private homes. Some of his men were with troops fighting in Hungary and Croatia in 1595, forming the first recorded military field ambulance. In Naples, he and his men went onto the galleys that had plague and were not allowed to land. He discovered that there were people being buried alive, and ordered his brothers to continue the prayers for the dying 15 minutes after apparent death.
Thus Camillus established the Order of Clerks Regular, Ministers of the Infirm (abbreviated as M.I.), better known as the Camillians. His experience in wars led him to establish a group of health care workers who would assist soldiers on the battlefield. The large, red cross on their cassock remains a symbol of the Congregation today. Camillians today continue to identify themselves with this emblem on their habits, a symbol universally recognized today as the sign of charity and service. This was the original Red Cross, hundreds of years before the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement was formed.
During the Battle of Canizza in 1601, while Camillians were helping with the wounded, the tent in which they were tending to the sick and in which they had all of their equipment and supplies was completely destroyed and burned to the ground. Everything in the tent was destroyed except the red cross of a religious habit belonging to one of the Camillians who was ministering to the wounded on the battlefield. This event was taken by the Camillans to manifest divine approval of the Red Cross of St. Camillus.
Members of the Order also devoted themselves to victims of Bubonic plague. It was due to the efforts of the brothers and supernatural healings by Camillus that the people of Rome credited him with ridding the city of a great plague and the subsequent famine. For a time, he became known as the “Saint of Rome”.
Camillus’ concern for the proper treatment of the sick extended to the end of their lives. He had come to be aware of the many cases of people being buried alive, due to haste, and ordered that the Brothers of his Order wait fifteen minutes past the moment when the patient seemed to have drawn his last breath, in order to avoid this.
In 1613 it became evident to himself and to his brethren that he could not live much longer, and at his own request he was taken to Rome, that he might die in the Holy City. But his preparation for death was characteristic of his life; so long as he could drag himself about he could not be kept from visiting the hospitals. When he could no longer go out, he still continued to visit the sick in his own house; and when that became impossible, then he set himself to writing many letters, to the many in the world who had helped him with their alms, and to his own brethren, that they might continue the good work. For himself, he did not forget what he had been. “I beseech you on my knees to pray for me,” he said to the General of the Carmelites, who visited him on his death-bed, “for I have been a great sinner, a gambler, and a man of bad life.”
Camillus himself suffered the disease of his leg through his life. In his last illness, he left his own bed to see if other patients in the hospital needed help. As his mind began to wander it always went in the direction of God’s mercy; he seemed never to tire of thanking Him for all He had done, through the merits of the Precious Blood of Christ. At length the end came. He stretched out his arms in the form of a cross, pronounced again his thanksgiving for the Blood of Christ, and died. It was in the evening of July 14th, 1614.