12 August 1864: the creation of the International Convention of the Red Cross of which our religious can worthily call themselves the ‘precursors’! (Camillian Diary)
An anonymous picture of the seventeenth century contains a depiction of care being given to the plague-stricken of Bologna during the epidemic of 1630. This depiction is rather detailed and portrays one of the most important squares of the city.
One element that is striking is that there are people who are wearing white or black cassocks, according to the task that has been entrusted to them: the provision of care to those struck by this terrible disease, on the one hand, and burial of the dead, on the other.
All of them (those wearing white and those wearing black) clearly wear a sign on their cassocks – the red cross. This uniform was invented, almost certainly, by the Camillians who during the plague of that period had fundamental and special roles, as can be deduced from a number of pages of the Storia dell’Ordine (‘A History of the Order’) written by Fr. Sannazzaro.
In Bologna the first cases of plague were encountered in May 1630. In seven months (May to December) there were 13,398 victims out of a population of 61,559 inhabitants in the urban centres, as well as 16,00 deaths in the surrounding countryside.
The fight against the epidemic was directed by Cardinal Bernardino Spada, a papal legate, who very quickly obtained the advice and the service of the Camillian religious, who in that city were present in the form of a community of about twenty religious (priests, professed brothers, students and some oblates). The Superior was Fr. Giovanni Battista Campana, a Roman, who was aged only twenty-eight.
Cardinal Spada, as soon as he knew that the plague had reached Bologna as well, ‘Sent orders and prohibitions throughout the city, in particular: that those who were touched (with the plague) were to confined to their homes and nobody should draw near to them, apart from the person entrusted with caring for them’.
Fr. Campana was called to be a part of the Assunteria di Sanità (City Health Committee). He was also entrusted with disinfecting letters and imposing quarantine on people and things that came from places where, it was thought, there could be the plague. In addition, with the full support of the legate (and prior agreements with the City Health Committee), he opened an isolation hospital for people suspected of having the plague a little outside St. Stephen’s Gate, on a hill called Belpoggio, and also one in Castelfranco…sending two of his religious to administer each isolation hospital’. As regards the assistance at the isolation hospitals, the general consulta was asked to provide the help of other religious: although it had already sent some fathers and brothers it now sent three young professed from Rome.
The painful news from Bologna personally concerned, in particular, four members of the generalate government and to such an extent that Fathers Novati, Zazio and Ottavio Danieli turned to Cardinal Ginnasi, the protector of the Order, to obtain authorisation to go to Bologna to help the plague-stricken. After his consent had been obtained, they asked permission from the Father General to go. He wanted to go with them as well but was held back by Pope Urban VIII with the promise that he would have a special appointment if the plague broke out in Rome. The three above-mentioned religious were joined by Fr. Prandi, a Bolognese.
Another isolation hospital was opened for the ‘infected’ at Madonna degli Angeli, the running of which was entrusted to the Camillian, Fr. Luca Pinocchi. Another was opened for women outside the S. Mammolo gate and this was run by the Jesuit, Fr. Angelo Orimbelli. Fr. Campana, already an expert in such matters and a superintendent in Belpoggio, had the task of receiving people suspected of having the plague, managing the personnel, organising provisions, and ensuring the upright administration of this pious place.
Changes to the Plan for the Organisation of Care in the City
Four general visitors were appointed to preside over four different parts of the city, with the authority to ensure that the orders of the Assunteria di Sanità were carried out. They were: Fr. Novati, Fr. Palomba, Fr. Ottavio Danieli and Br. Prandi, all of whom were Camillians. Each one of these was helped by another Minister of the Sick. Fr. Zazio was made general commissar for the ‘spurgo’ (‘disinfection’). The tasks of the four general visitors covered ‘infinite works of charity: they visited the sick, comforted them (those that were priests gave confessions) and at times, when there was a need for this, provided them with things that they needed. They also had those who were in difficulty in their homes taken to the isolation hospitals, ensuring that those who had been suspected of having the plague were taken back to their homes and when the time was right set free’.
These general visitors had under them the ‘Assunti’, that is to say men entrusted with the individual parishes who every evening had to go to the Camillian house of S. Colombano and report to a general visitor on their own neighbourhoods, with a list of those suspected of having the plague, those who were infected, and those who had died that day. On the next day the general visitor would give orders to deal with the situation.
Physicians, surgeons, barbers and monatti (translator’s note: ‘monatti’ were figures of the medieval period in Italy who were used at times of plague to take sick people or corpses to the isolation hospitals) were all under the general visitors who employed them when, and as, needs required.
The plague grew weaker in a marked way during the autumn and disappeared during the winter. Overall, nine Camillians died from the plague in Bologna and others (four in number) contracted it. Their admirable behaviour achieved a resonance within the Roman Curia as well. Urban VIII and the whole of his court admired ‘the fine example set on that occasion by the Ministers of the Sick’.
Indeed, this was one of the greatest demonstrations of charity in terms of example set, service, and capacity for direct action, during one the most difficult moments of the seventeenth century. On the other hand, providing care to the plague-stricken, even thereby putting their lives at risk, was the jewel in the crown of the Ministers of the Sick which they always maintained, through their fourth vow, as living witness to ‘martyrdom to charity’.