Much more than Padres Damaso and Salvi
This month, San Lazaro Hospital is celebrating its 436th year with a novena on March 4-12 and the feast itself on March 13. The history of hospitals and healthcare services in the Philippines would be incomplete without the mention of San Lazaro Hospital, which was founded in 1578 as the first leprosarium in the Philippines, and indeed in the whole of Asia.
Caring for lepers is part of the tradition started by St. Francis of Assisi who worked with and served lepers; his example was taken up by the religious families he founded—the Franciscans, the Poor Clares, and the Secular Order which has lay people and clergy as members.
The need for such care was immediately apparent to the first group of Franciscans who arrived in the Philippines in 1578. In that very year, Fray Juan Clemente, a lay brother, started treating the sick where the friars had their first home, eventually constructing a small structure from native materials. (This is depicted in a diorama in Ayala Museum in Makati.) The little clinic evolved eventually into what is now San Juan de Dios Hospital on Roxas Boulevard. Fray Juan’s bust is in the main foyer of the hospital, with a historical marker.
Fray Juan, however, saw another group of afflicted natives—lepers and such. He was not allowed to treat them within the walled city (Intramuros), so he obtained a donation in the former Mayhaligue Estate to build San Lazaro Hospital as a leprosarium. The structure was named, not after Lazaro of Bethany, but after the character in the parable of Jesus about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31), a parable that became the basis of Cardinal Gaudencio B. Rosales’ project for the poor, the “Pondo ng Pinoy.”
The two healthcare institutions grew and developed. San Juan de Dios Hospital, later under the Hospitallers of St. John of God (hence the name), eventually moved out of Intramuros and is now under the Sisters of Charity. San Lazaro Hospital continued to be administered by the Franciscans until the Philippine Revolution of 1896, with the last director being Fr. Felix Huertas OFM, in whose honor the City of Manila named a street parallel to Rizal Avenue. Let’s hope Manila will keep a sense of history and not change the street’s name in favor of some politician or big taxpayer.
San Lazaro Hospital developed to be a general hospital, but still with special wards for contagious diseases, including HIV-AIDS patients today. The leprosarium itself was moved to Tala near Novaliches and Culion in Palawan.
Documents in the Archivo Franciscano Ibero-Oriental in Madrid indicate that the Franciscans continued to administer the hospital even after the Americans had taken over the country after the Philippine revolution from Spain. Not long after, however, the American authorities, with the then archbishop of Manila, Most Reverend Michael O’Doherty, declared the hospital the property of the archdiocese. They then took the ownership and administration from the Franciscans, along with the land on which the chapel, the residence of the friars, and the administration building were built.
Today San Lazaro Hospital continues to provide the service as originally desired by Fray Juan Clemente and the generations of Franciscans who administered it. The hospital’s services have improved with government help; the spiritual administration and the property in the hospital compound that used to be the residence of the friars are under the Archdiocese of Manila. The archdiocese took charge of the repair of the quaint baroque chapel and part of the old friary that used to house a museum but burned down in the 1960s.
This forgotten monument of the work of Franciscans in the Philippines, together with the old churches built in Morong (now Rizal), Laguna, Tayabas (now Quezon), all the way to Bicol and parts of Samar, remind us that there was much more to the Franciscans than the hated characters of Padre Damaso and Padre Salvi of National Hero Jose Rizal’s novels.
Antonio Maria Rosales ([email protected]) is a Franciscan priest, author, artist and visiting professor of moral theology at the Redemptorist Seminary in Davao City. He is based at the St. Francis Friary, Punta Princesa, Cebu City.