On 2 February 1575, at the age of twenty-five, the young Camillus de Lellis abandoned for ever the tearaway and dissolute life that he had led up to that time in order to dedicate himself completely to those most in need. His conversion took place in Puglia, in the so-named Valle dell’inferno, on the road that connects San Giovanni Rotondo with Manfredonia.
Camillus, a mercenary soldier and a hardened gambler, had reached Manfredonia from Naples looking for an upturn in his life but was reduced to being a beggar in front of the Church of St. Dominic. Here he was noticed by a local nobleman, Antonio di Nicastro, the procurator of the Capuchin fathers, who asked him to work as a manual worker on the building of the religious house and the adjoining church. After a little hesitation, Camillus agreed.
During the sixty days that he was a guest of the friars, the harmony of their chants and the powerful witness of their actions worked unknowingly inside him, preparing him for his encounter with God. On 1 February 1575 Camillus reached San Giovanni Rotondo to bring comestibles to the friars of the local friary. Here he was welcomed by the custodian of the place, Father Angelo, who stayed with him in the bower of the garden and gave him a ‘short spiritual argument’, speaking to him about God and the meaning of existence. Camillus was moved and strongly shaken.
In the morning of 2 February, the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, he went back towards Manfredonia. Here, on the stony high plane of Gargano, his conversion took place. ‘Ah poor me, what great blindness has been my life without knowing first my Lord! Why have I not dedicated myself to serving him? Forgive Lord, forgive this great sinner’, he cried out.
Since then the Camillians have commemorated 2 February as the day of the conversion of St. Camillus, striving to ensure that the memory of that event is not lost, and being the custodians of those symbolic places of Puglia which are the destination every year of pilgrimages and moments of prayer.