Camillus de Lellis was born in 1550 at Bucchianico (now in Abruzzo and then part of the Kingdom of Naples). His was an unusual family life; his mother was nearly 50 when she gave birth to him and his father, being an army officer, was rarely at home. Camillus’s mother died when he was aged 16 and he joined his father in the Venetian army fighting in the war against the Turks.
After his regiment was disbanded, the young De Lellis was forced to work as a labourer at the Capuchin friary at Manfredonia.
Although he was prone to aggression and gambling, the guardian of the friary encouraged the best in him. Eventually De Lellis
had a religious conversion in 1575. He entered the novitiate of the Capuchin friars but a leg wound from the war continuously plagued him and he was denied admission to that Order.
He moved to Rome and entered the Hospital of St James where he eventually became a caregiver and later the director. De Lellis was eventually ordained after discerning that he wanted to found a religious order, with the help of his spiritual director Philip Neri, he was ordained Pentecost 1584 by Lord Thomas Goldwell, Bishop of St Asaph, Wales, and the last surviving Catholic bishop of Great Britain.
De Lellis established the Order of Clerks Regular, Ministers to the Sick, better known as the Camillians, and he also founded a group of healthcare professionals to assist soldiers on the battlefield who wore large red crosses. They were the original Red Cross community who later became the International Red Cross Organisation.
During the Battle of Canizza in 1601 the Camillians’s tent was burned to the ground and everything was destroyed except the red cross of a religious habit belonging to one of their number. The Camillians interpreted this event as divine approval of the Red Cross of St Camillus.
In 1586 Pope Sixtus V formally recognised the Order as a congregation and allocated them the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Rome. Pope Gregory XV raised the congregation to the status of an order in 1591. At this point they established their fourth vow: “to serve the sick, even with danger to one’s own life”.
Although De Lellis was infirm himself he would crawl in order to visit the sick when unable to walk. He eventually died in Rome in 1614 and was entombed at the Church of St Mary Magdalene.