Born to the very religious Andre Cidade and Teresa Duarte, Saint John's birth name was Joao Duarte Cidade (the Spanish form was Joao Cidade Duarte) on March 8th, 1495, in the town of Montemor-o-Novo in the Kingdom of Portugal. At the very young age of 8, Saint John was overheard a local Priest giving sermons of adventures in the new world and he decided to run away from his home to travel with the priest and his entourage in search of adventure. The decision devastated his parents - his mother later died from the grief of losing her son and his father joined the Franciscan Order believing his son to be gone.
His travels took him to Spain where he ended up a homeless orphan near Toledo. Saint John was now homeless, family-less and in a foreign land. A manager of a large estate by the name of Francisco Mayoral took pity on the young child and brought him into his home to adopt him as a son. Francisco loved him and treated him extremely well - in return Saint John did the same, working as a shepherd in the mountains. Francisco so loved Saint John that he offered his daughter's hand in marriage and the opportunity to become heir to the estates. Saint John turned it down, and as the pressure and insistence continued, he fled the manor and enlisted in the Spanish army.
At the time, the Spanish were fighting against the French army. The foot soldier unit he joined served under Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and was soon dispatched by Fernando Alvarez de Toledo y Zuniga the Count of Oropesa to fight in battle against the French army at Font Arabia. As a soldier, he took part in the gambling, pillaging, and drinking so commonly found within armies at the time. Before reaching Font Arabia, he was thrown off a horse and fell behind enemy lines. He vowed to himself that he could make it back to his army safely he would begin to change his life. He did so but found his friends in the army were not so ready to change their ways. He was tricked into guarding a large amount of loot that had been pillaged during the battle. While guarding it, an amount was secretly stolen and the blame placed directly onto Saint John. He was arrested and sentenced to hanging but an officer at the last minute intervened for him and he was spared any punishments. The event though would completely disillusion him and he left the army to return to Oropesa.
For the next four years he spent a contemplative and quiet life as a shepherd around the town. One day a large column of troops marched by on their way to Hungary to fight against the invading Turkish army. Saint John again had the spark of adventure ignited him and so he joined them, fighting across Europe for the next nearly 18 years. On a return journey, his army stopped at A Coruna in Galicia, close to Saint John's original home. Though he had forgotten where exactly his old home was in the town and even his parent's names, he was able to track down one of his uncles who told him what had happened to his parents. Realizing that there was nothing to keep him there in his old home, he left and returned to Spain.
At Seville he began taking up the life of a shepherd again and returned to a very contemplative life. As he continued to ponder his life and his calling for the rest of his life, Saint John realized that the life he chose was no longer one he wished to continue with. He had always hoped to visit Africa and so set out for the Portuguese territory of Ceuta, aiming to give up his life as a martyr to rescue Christians who were being enslaved there. As he waited for a ship, he met a Portuguese Knight who had been exiled to the territory with his family. When they arrived at Ceuta, the Knight's family found that locals had stolen everything they sent ahead of them, leaving the family penniless. To make things worse, the family fell ill to sickness and couldn't work to rebuild their finances. Saint John, seeing their need for hope, volunteered himself to be their servant and helped work to support them. The colony's rulers were ruthless though, and treated the poor of the colony extremely harshly. A co worker of Saint John's defected to the Islamic lands nearby just to escape living so terribly under the colony's management.
Seeing how the poor were treated greatly disturbed and depressed Saint John. He sought spiritual help with the local Franciscans in their friary who told him that perhaps God was not calling him to the town and he should instead return to Spain. Once he helped secure pardons for the Knight's family (allowing them to return to Portugal), Saint John departed Ceuta and returned to Spain. When he landed in Gibraltar, Saint John had a vision of the Infant Jesus who gave him the name John of God and directed him to travel to Granada. At Granada, Saint John began use the recently invented printing press of Johannes Gutenberg to disseminate books of chivalry, Christian spirituality, and other devotional books.
After sometime in the city, Saint John heard a sermon by the visiting Saint John of Avila that utterly transformed his life. At 42, Saint John was so moved that he began audibly and violently repenting for everything he had done in his life . The townspeople believed he was having a mental breakdown and had him put into the Royal Hospital for mental illness. Saint John of Avila came and visited him a few days later though and advised him that rather than performing personal mortifications he should instead be tending to the needs of others. Once he got out, Saint John travelled to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Extremadura and had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary who gave him similar advice - to go and work with the sick and poor. He established a house to tend to the needs of the sick and poor, first alone and with begging but soon aided by charitable Priests and physicians. He began to be visited by Heavenly visitors, including Saint Raphael. The Bishop of Tui, Sebastian Ramirez, created a religious habit for him (since Saint John would continuously give up his cloak to any beggar or person in need he came across).
Soon he attracted a close group of brothers to aid him in his tasks. He organized this group into a new order, The Order of Hospitallers. The Holy See formally approved this Order in 1572 as the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God. Officially, the medical care of the Pope is entrusted to members of this group.
Saint John of God passed away on his 55th birthday, March 8, 1550. He was first buried at the Church of Our Lady of the Victories, then moved in 1664 by the Hospitaller Brothers who moved his relics to the church of their hospital. Pope Alexander VIII canonized Saint John on October 16th, 1690.
Today the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God serves in 53 different countries and operates in over 300 hospitals. There are 45,000 members of the Family of Saint John of God. For more information, including ways to help the Order, please visit the link below.