St. Camillus de Lellis founded the Order of the Ministers of the Sick (also known as Camillians) in 1582. At first, he visited the sick with his companions. They strove to serve Christ in the sick. They made their bed, performed deeds of charity, and prepared them to receive the sacraments.

A few years later, Camillus got a bigger house for his community, and, according to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, he “ordained that the members of his congregation should bind themselves … to serve persons infected with the plague, prisoners, and those who lie dying in private houses.”

In 1591 and 1601, some members of the congregation accompanied the troops into Hungary and Croatia, so forming the first recorded “military field ambulance.”

A large red cross was chosen by Camillus as the distinguishing badge for the members of the congregation to wear upon their black cassocks. The symbol of red cross was later adopted as the international symbol of medical care. 

During the Battle of Canizza in 1601, while the members of the congregation were busily tending the wounded on the battlefield, the tent in which they had all of their equipment and supplies was burned to the ground. Everything in the tent was destroyed except for the red cross of the habit belonging to one of the members. This event was taken by the community as manifesting divine approval of the red cross symbol.

Butler’s points out that Camillus made it the chief end of his community “to afford or procure the sick all spiritual succour, discreetly to suggest to them short acts of contrition and other virtues, to read to them, and to pray for them. For this end he furnished his priests with proper books of devotion, especially on penance and on the sufferings of Christ; and he taught them to have always at hand the most suitable ejaculations extracted from the psalms and other prayers. But dying persons were the principal objects of his zeal and charity.”

The members of the congregation risked their lives to tend the sick during plagues, and some members died after contracting diseases. They were considered “Martyrs of Charity” by the community, which commemorates them annually on May 25. Camillians also celebrate the feast day of “Our Lady, Health of the Sick” on Nov. 16 each year.

Camillus treated the poor with great kindness and generosity. He did not wait for the poor to come to him but went out to search for the poor to help them. He said, “If no poor could be found in the world, men ought to go in search of them, and dig them up from underground to do them good, and to be merciful to them.”

Camillus showed kindness even to animals. According to a biography, one time “he came across a dog with a broken leg. He cared for it and fed it regularly; when he had to leave the place, he asked others to continue to look after it. ‘I, too, have had a bad leg,’ he said; ‘and I know the misery of not being able to walk. This is a creature of God, and a faithful creature, too. If I am as faithful to my master as a dog is to his, I shall do very well.’”

Camillus continued to suffer from his leg wound, and as he got older, he experienced more health issues. According to Butler’s, “When he was not able to stand he would creep out of his bed, even in the night, and crawl from one patient to another to exhort them to acts of virtue, and see if they wanted anything.” He died on July 14, 1614, at the age of 64.