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This priest founded the world’s first mental hospital

Public Domain

He knew that the disabled are God’s children, and expected his faithful to live out this truth in their city.

Juan Gilberto-Jofre was born in Valencia, Spain, on June 24, 1350. He was baptized in the Church of  St. Martin. And in this same church, he came into contact with the Mercedarians, who occupied the nearby Monastery of Santa Maria de El Puig.

During his early life, he had wanted to be a lawyer and went to Leida to study law. Upon leaving the school, he headed back to Valencia. He had a definite purpose in mind; he had decided he wanted to join the Mercedarian Order.

In the year 1370, Juan was accepted into the monastery and received his habit.  Five years later he was ordained a priest. The primary purpose of the Mercedarians was to ransom Christian prisoners taken by the Moors. Father Juan carried out many rescue missions, saving condemned Christians from certain torture and death. These rescue mission also allowed Father Juan to see how horribly the mentally ill were treated by their captors.  He returned to Valencia and became Superior of the Order there.

On Friday, February 24, 1409, Father Juan was on his way to the cathedral to say Mass. He heard a commotion in the street and saw a man on the ground covering his head with his arms as a gang of young people were taunting and mocking and hitting him. Father Juan hurried over to the small crowd and demanded they stop hurting one of God’s children.

During this time in history, many people assumed that those who were, in fact, mentally ill were possessed by a demon. There was little to no understanding of mental illness and quite often, people thought they were doing society a favor by driving away those afflicted with these illnesses, and sometimes even killing them.

Father Juan rescued the man and brought him to the Mercedarian monastery, where he was given shelter and had his wounds tended to.

The following Sunday at Mass, Father Juan spoke of these marginalized people in his homily. He told his congregation that as followers of Jesus he wanted them to join him in protecting the insane and innocent. He told them that these people were God’s children too, and lamented that they were left to wander throughout the city, suffering great hardships such as hunger, cold, beatings, and abuse simply because of their innocence and because they were misunderstood.

He wanted to build a place to take these people and care for them and keep them safe. He told the people that it would be a very holy thing for the people of Valencia to do. Then he mentioned the Eight Beatitudes and reminded them that one of them said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

Among the congregation at Mass were merchants, businessmen, and craftsmen. A short time later the General Council of the City approved an initiative to build the hospital. It was to be located outside the city close to a place called the Torrent Gate, which soon became known as the Gate of the Insane.

The hospital that was founded by Father Juan Gilberto-Jorfe became the very first mental hospital in the world. It was dedicated to the Blessed Mother under the title of “Our Lady of the Innocents.” Thus began for the first time anywhere a place to provide care and medical attention to the mentally ill while at the same time sheltering them. Today this hospital is the University Teaching Hospital, of the University of Valencia.

Father Juan died on May 18, 1417, and buried at the Monastery of El Puig. The cause for his canonization was stalled twice; in the early 18th century during the Napoleonic Wars, when his supporting documentation was destroyed, and during the Spanish Civil War of 1936.

The process has finally been revived, and Father Juan Gilberto-Jofre was declared a Servant of God in 2007. His cause for canonization has been referred to Rome.

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