Catholic Medical Quarterly

The Journal of the Catholic Medical Association (UK)

Building knowledge. Building faith. Protecting the vulnerable.

Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 64(1) February 2014

Great Medical Lives

St John of God

Brid Heihir

Picture of St John of GodJohn was born at Montemor O Novo in Portugal in 1495. When only eight years old, John was taken from the Cidade family by a cleric and taken 300 kilometres across the border into Spain. He worked as a shepherd, soldier and bookseller in various parts of Spain and North Africa before finally settling in Granada, southern Spain.

Around the age of forty he had what would today be called a ‘nervous breakdown’ and he was placed in a psychiatric hospital where, as was the practice of the time, he was tortured. When he was discharged from the hospital, John travelled to Guadelupe to deepen his spirituality and to learn nursing and medical skills. On his return to Granada, he set up a shelter for the needy which soon evolved into a hospital for (in John’s own words) “cripples, defectives, lepers, dumb, mad, paralytics, people with skin troubles as well as aged folk and many children.” He supported the shelter by begging on the streets calling out ‘do good to yourself by doing good to others’. Hence the name of our fundraising office in London - Do Good Charity.

John was innovative in the treatment of his patients and also worked to release prostitutes from a life of vice and degradation. His work began to attract other men who wished to help him in his works and to follow his example of a life completely committed to helping the poor. The number of hospitals grew.

John died on 8 March 1550 and was canonised in 1690. He was subsequently declared the patron saint of hospitals and the sick. The legacy of the Father of the Poor was a movement of compassion that has grown throughout the ensuing centuries. Known as the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God, the Brothers of this religious family date their existence from 1572.

The Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God

The Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God is a renowned Catholic Order of Nursing Brothers which aims to provide healthcare and support services internationally. It focuses particularly on vulnerable people most in need of services in Britain and in 53 countries worldwide. Many will live in developing countries with little access to the health care considered a basic human right in the West. The order strives to develop services that will benefit communities long term. Good examples include the St John of God Hospital in Sierra Leone and the community mental health services in Malawi and Senegal. The services rely hugely on donations from private individuals – ordinary people willing to help other human beings through times of great need.

The Order works in 11 African countries - Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, Liberia, Malawi, Kenya, Mozambique, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo and Zambia. Services focus on providing support to people with mental health problems, children with disabilities, in need of rehabilitation as well as food security, water and sanitation programmes. Two of these are of particular importance in regard of the Order’s mission of helping the deprived in a dignified manner. In Lunsar, Sierra Leone the Order’s hospital not only provides healthcare services for the local community, but the associated Nursing School also supports women and men to train as State Enrolled Community Health Nurses. In a country of 6 million people and fewer than 100 doctors this is vitally important. It means that people who live in extreme poverty now have better access to qualified health care professionals locally. Many of the nurse trainees are from the Lunsar area and through sponsorship the Order supports them and their families financially, to help improve their immediate and long term economic situation. We were particularly pleased when in March 2013 the third intake of 91 nurses celebrated their achievements in a graduation ceremony in Lunsar.

The Order is also very active in Malawi. In response to the 2002 famine, the Umusuma Project was established (Umsuma means Wholeness) with the aim of enhancing food production and food security as well as promoting community integration and the participation of people suffering from mental ill health and their families. The project has proved to be an effective non-medical way of improving the quality of life for people with mental illness and disability. In 2007, a housing component was added to Umusuma; people with managed long term mental illnesses but living in very poor conditions are supported to construct a basic house with two bedrooms, a living room and kitchen. Clients make a contribution of about 25% to the cost of construction by providing locally-sourced materials like bricks, sand, water, timber and labour. Twenty houses have already been built and are now occupied by people with enduring mental health conditions and their families.

The order also trains health care professionals in the College of Health Sciences, Mzuzu. The focus on mental health is crucial because service provision is limited in Malawi. There are only three Psychiatric hospitals and one Consultant psychiatrist for the country’s 15 million people. So nurses, currently studying for an MSc in Psychiatric Nursing – Mental Health, are a fantastic resource to people desperately in need of care and support. That the College of Health Sciences trains qualified nurses, doctors and counsellors in psychiatry yearly is proof that with the support of generous people from the developed world relatively sophisticated mental health services can be developed and provided in one of Africa’s poorest countries.

It is central to the Hospitaller Order of St John of God that the activities it undertakes are in accordance with the ideals and principles established by its founder. The mission of St John of God continued through what became his Order and people from the poorest of communities continue to benefit from the work of the Brothers and co-workers. If you would like to help, donations are welcome and can be made through the website:

Brid Hehir, Development Manager, Do Good Charity