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. De Lellis 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.
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.
He then moved to Rome where he entered the San Giacomo Hospital (possibly founded by the Hospitaller Knights of St. James), which cared for incurable cases. He himself became a caregiver at the hospital, and later its Superintendent. In the meantime, he continued to follow a strict ascetic life, performing many penances, such as constant wearing of a hairshirt. He took as his spiritual director and confessor, the popular local priest, Philip Neri, who was himself to found a religious congregation and be declared a saint.
Camillus began to observe the poor attention the sick received from the staff of the hospital. He was led to invite a group of pious men to express their faith through the care of the patients at the hospital. Eventually he felt called to establish a religious community for this purpose, and that he should seek Holy Orders for this task. Along with Saint John of God he has been named patron of hospitals, nurses, and the sick. Neri, his confessor, gave him approval for this endeavor, and a wealthy donor provided him with the income necessary to undertake his seminary studies 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.
Throughout his life Camillus’ ailments caused him suffering, but he allowed no one to wait on him and would crawl to visit the sick when unable to stand and walk. It is said that Camillus possessed the gifts of healing and prophecy. He resigned as Superior General of the Order in 1607, but continued to serve as Vicar General of the Order. By that time, communities of the Order had spread all throughout Italy, even as far as Hungary. He assisted in a General Chapter of the Order in 1613, after which he accompanied the new Superior General on an inspection tour of all the hospitals of the Order in Italy. In the course of that tour, he fell ill. He died in Rome in 1614, and was entombed at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene.