Fr. Joan Gilabert Jofré saved a mentally ill man from bullies and went on to found the "Hospital of the Innocents."
A Catholic priest founded the world’s first psychiatric hospital. Surprised? We shouldn’t be. This is only one of the many contributions the Church has made to humanity, which most people are unaware of—even Catholics.
It was Friday, February 24, 1409. Fr. Joan Gilabert Jofré was leaving the convent in the Plaza de la Merced, in Valencia, Spain. On his way to the cathedral, near the church of St. Catherine, he saw a group of young men mocking and assaulting a man. Shouting, they called him “Crazy, crazy!”
In fact, it was apparent that this was a mentally disturbed man. The priest bravely fended off the aggressors, protected the poor man, and took him to the Mercedarian residence.
Fr. Jofré himself was a Mercedarian Friar, that is, a priest belonging to the Order of Mercy, which he had entered in 1370.
The Mercedarians and Our Lady of Mercy
The Mercedarians are still around today, and the community is more than 800 years old. The order was founded on August 10, 1218, in Barcelona. In addition to the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, its members took a fourth vow: to devote their lives so completely to freeing slaves that they would even exchange places with captives who were in danger of losing their faith—or if the order had no money to buy their release.
One of the best known Mercedarians is the founder, St. Peter Nolasco. He was a great liberator of Christians who were kidnapped by Muslims and taken as slaves to North Africa. The saint even sold the patrimony he had inherited from his family to organize rescue expeditions. When he ran out of resources, he started begging for alms and donations. When he also ran out of alms and donations, St. Peter Nolasco begged God for a miracle. That was when he received an apparition of Our Lady, who asked him to found a congregation dedicated to rescuing slaves. This is the origin of both the Order of Mercy and the devotion to Our Lady of Mercy.
The first psychiatric hospital
It was at the Mercedarian residence that Fr. Jofré sheltered this poor man who was being harassed because of his mental disorder. From then on, Jofré began to promote not only charity toward the mentally ill, but also the creation of a specific hospital for them.
Pope Benedict XIII learned of the initiative and authorized the work with the bull of May 16, 1410. The hospital was placed under the spiritual patronage of the Virgin Mary under the title of Our Lady of the Innocents.
Things moved quickly: on June 1, 1410, the Hospital of the Innocents was born to receive the mentally ill, the poor, and abandoned children. The hospital’s chapel was dedicated to Our Lady of the Helpless. That first hospital in the world to provide treatment and residence for the mentally ill became today’s University Hospital of Valencia.
Fr. Jofré spent a season carrying out evangelization missions together with St. Vincent Ferrer. Shortly after returning to the monastery, he died on May 18, 1417. Despite several setbacks due to historical circumstances and not to the life of Fr. Jofré himself, his process of canonization is pending but not forgotten.