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The Franciscans and the Care for the Sick


San Lazaro Hospital in 1932

San Juan De Dios Hospital in 1932



“The Church in the Philippines was rich in work of mercy and all kinds of institutions of charity.  Long before that unbridle thirst for material pleasure and joys, which today eats our society, had spread, even before then, there was scarcely a Catholic of  average means who did not care to perpetuate his memory after his death by leaving some pious legacy for the satisfaction somehow of the many needs of his equals.  The Philippines and Manila, its capital city especially, could boast of being one of the cities in the world better provided with all kinds of charitable institutions:  Hospital, orphanages, asylums, leprosaria, etc..  No material or spiritual needs was hidden to the generous charity of these people, Christians in heart and soul” (Tamayo, Serapio, O.P. Idea General de la Disciplina Eclesiastica Durante la Dominicion Espaņola, Manila, 1960, pp. 99-100).


The Franciscans easily stand as the pioneers of such works of mercy and are surpassed by none in the numbers of institutions under their care.


The first hospital ever to exist in the Philippines, and perhaps even in the entire Far East, were open by the Franciscans shortly after their arrival in Manila in 1578.  carried by a deep understanding of the needs of the people and moved by a clear awareness that charity is the touch-stone of every sincere apostolic enterprise. They set hospital in the main cities and infirmaries wherever there was a Franciscan convent in order to be able to cure the bodies as well as soul of the natives. Side by side with the hospitals and infirmaries, they open boticas,  the first drug stores in this part of the world. 

(Pablo Fernandes, O.P., “History of the Church in the Philippines,”  Boletin Eclesiastico de Filipinas 44, 1970, p.651.


These effort of the Franciscan are the more remarkable if we consider that “the first hospital in the English colonies was Pennsylvania Hospital, incorporated in 1751, while by the beginning of the 17th century, Manila had four hospitals, according to Morga.

(Jesus Cavanna y Manso, C.M. Rizal and the Philippines of His Days, p. 175).


“While in America, Massachussets opened its first general hospital in 1811, and Boston had no hospital for general diseases until late in the 19th century, here in the Philippines, under the “despotism” of the friars, we had hospitals not only in Manila but in our far away provinces” (Ibid.,p.177).




All social services-schools, hospitals, orphanages – were left by common consent to the initiative and responsibility of the church porter of the Franciscan convent of Manila, a lay brother named  Fray Juan Clemente, where practice of caring for the sick who knocked at the convent door led to the foundation of the colony’s first hospital.


The number of people to be fed and to be cured of their ailments increased to such an extent that the vestibule of the convent came to be filled to capacity, since there was other suitable place.  And as the fame of his cures spread, the press of these seeking them became necessary… to erect in the patio or outer court of the convent a long shed or shelter of bamboo roofed with paralysis, running sores and leprosy of every nation, Christian and non-Christian, could be taken care of. For the charity of our Fray Juan Clemente extended not only to the natives of this country but to strangers from Siam, the Malabar coast, China, Japan, the Malay peninsula and Borneo; to all these sick he applied the remedies, with which heaven inspired an unschooled lay brother, where knowledge of the most effective medicaments was derived from the assiduous practice of prayer.


Sometimes later he decided to enlarge his hospital, though without losing sight of it from his porter’s lodge.  There was a piece of land adjoining (and it is where the fathers of St. John of God now have their infirmary) which was just what Fray Juan Clemente wanted because it was public land and so close… It was marshy and water logged… but in spite of that in less than a year he managed to construct two wings of a wooden building, each fifty paces in length, with four rows of beds for patients suffering from every kind of ailment,  and smaller wards set apart for women patients, with the usual offices and a large remarkably well stocked pharmacy … it had when finished more that two hundred beds for men and women patients, both natives of these islands and foreigners … And was thus Manila’s general hospital, open to all.


Readings in the Philippine History, by H. de la Costa, SJ, pp. 32-33; Makati, Rizal, Philippines.




ONE LEPROSARIUM worth mentioning because of its brilliant history through the centuries is that of San Lazaro.  Here as in so many other works of charity, the Franciscans took the land.  As we have already said, it began in 1578, near the door of the convent of San Francisco.  In 1632, the Emperor of Japan expelled 130 poor lepers criminally guilty because they were Christians.  Their arrival in the Philippines won the compassion of the Franciscans and the attention of the government.  The former sheltered them in a house they had built in Dilao (Paco)  right after the destruction of their building in Intramuros during the earthquake of 1603.  The secular government aided them with generous alms.  Year later, Coucuera removed the Franciscans  from the administration of this institution of charity.  But the king, in answer to their justified complaints, restored them in 1641.


A decree signed by Governor Basco in 1784 and approved by the King in 1785 transferred the leprosarium to Mayhaligue, the site it now occupies in Rizal Avenue.  In succeeding years, this institution had to pass through difficult periods due to lack of funds.  The building was not sufficient and the hacienda, mismanaged, did not provide enough to support the sick.  From these straits, the energetic Fr. Felix Huerta came in 1859 to rescue the hospital.  He improved the building and rectified the administration, so much so that by the end of the nineteenth century, San Lazaro was well-established and had adequeate means of support.  This was the situation when the Archbishop of Manila, who had succeeded to the Spanish Government as Patron of the Hospital removed it from the administration of the Franciscans in 1907 and ceded it to the American government which, in exchange, had given up its pretensions to the other pious foundation.” (Fernandez, Pablo, OP, , The Church in the History of the Philippines,” Boletin Eclesiastico de Filipinas 44, 1970, p. 655.


Outside the walls of this city is the hospital of San Lazaro, in charge of this are the discalced religious men of St. Francis, for contagious diseases.  This is annually assisted from this royal treasury, in accordance with the royal decree of January 22, 1672, with 787 pesos, including the cost of 1,500 laying hens, 200 blankets, and 1,500 cavans of rice;  and one barrel of wine for celebration of the holy sacrifice of the mass.

(Pablo Francisco Rodriguez de Berdozido,  “The Eclesiastical Estate in the Aforesaid Philippine Islands,” Manila, 1724. See  the Philippine Islands, by the Blair and Robertson, vol. XLVII, p. 137).


“Outside the walls of Manila is another hospital, with the name of San Lazaro, in which are gathered all these who are stricken by the contagious disease of same name; it is administered and cared for by the religious of our holy father St. Francis, and his Majesty has assigned to it, by virtue of a royal decree of January 22, 1672, a contribution of 1,187 pesos 4 reals every year – 500 pesos in cash, paid from the royal treasury; the rest is the estimated value of 1,500 fowls, 200 light Ilocos blankets, and one barrel of Castillan wine for the the holy sacrifice of the mass.”

(Juan Maldonado de Puga, Religiosa Hospitalidad por los Hijos de San Juan de Dios en Filipinas, Granada 1742. See the Philippine Islands, etc., vol. XLVII, p.227



The hospital owes its foundation to a Franciscan lay brother, Fray Juan Clemente.  In 1578, Fray Juan began to aid the poor and the sick who gather at the doors of the poor convent of Saint Francis, asking good medicine.  Because the place was not suitable for so great a demand, the good brother thought of building a hospital.  In a short time, aided by the poor themselves, he raised two spacious halls on the site now occupied in Intramuros by the Jose Laurel Lyceum.  Destroyed during the fire of 1583, he had to construct it again.  Years later, the holy priest Fr. Juan Fernandez de Leon, offered his charitable people, he constructed a third hall in 1593.  But everything went down during the earthquake of 1603.  The greatest aid this virtuous priest gave to the hospital was the establishment on his own initiative of the Mesa de la Misericordia in 1594.  in the future, it would take care of proving the means of support for the wing he had built.


After 1603, the Franciscan fathers decided to build a leprosarium for the lepers they had already sheltered, in the outskirts of Manila.  They also donated the site of the ruined hospital to the Mesa de la Misericordia.  Although this entity build a new edifice and was charge with its administration, the spiritual care of the sick contained in the hands of the Franciscans.  On 13 May 1656, the Confraternity entrusted the directions of the hospital,  since then called San Juan de Dios,  to the religious Hospitallers,  from whose hands it passed in 1865,  by express will of the Queen Isabel II to the care of the Daughters of  Charity.  Form this date, the Spanish government which enjoyed higher supervisory powers over it because of the Patronato Real, decided, in agreement with the ecclesiastical authority, to name a Board of Inspectors to oversee the proper functioning of this charitable institution.  The presidency of the Board was given to the Franciscan Order through Royal Order in 1891.  The immediate direction and supervision had been in the charge of the Daughter of Charity since 1865,  in virtue of a decree of the Governor-General dated 17 August 1865.  In the second half of the last century, the building of San Juan de Dios suffered much damage from the earthquake of 1863 and 1882”


(Fernandez, Pablo, OP “ The History of the Church in the Philippines”, Boletin Eclesiastico de Filipinas 44, 1970, pp. 651-652.