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From Sickness to Health

The Catholic legacy of treating soul and body

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All too often, today's post-Christian West deliberately ignores, willfully forgets, and even suppresses the Catholic Church's unequalled contributions to civilization.

Today, as we honor America's bold embrace of liberty 248 years ago, we would do well also to remember the myriad ways that God has acted through His Church, over the course of two millennia, to draw humanity away from barbarism and set us on the path toward civilization.


One of the Church's most commonly-overlooked contributions is its role in developing – to use a contemporary term – the "healthcare system."

This is stunning, in that the roots of the system are traceable to Christ Himself – to His instruction, given to the apostles, to "love your neighbor as yourself."

"And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. The second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself."

Jesus not only provided the words, He set the example. He spent His ministry curing the sick, healing the lame and restoring sight to the blind – returning others to health, soul and body. Indeed, it's difficult to overstate the significance of this.

Of course, over its two-thousand-year history, the Church has sparked revolutions in science, education, agriculture, law, economics, art, music, and architecture, among other domains. Directly or indirectly, for example, it has inspired wonders such as the masterpieces of Michelangelo (1475-1564), the symphonies and operas of Mozart (1756-1791), and the flying buttresses and Gothic sculptures of Chartres Cathedral (1145+). Likewise, there is no denying the importance of the nameless monk-scribes who for centuries hand-copied works, both sacred and secular, thereby preserving them for posterity.

But, as groundbreaking as such achievements were, the emergence of the healthcare system could arguably be said to top them all, as this was set in motion by Jesus Himself – again, Christ's words, and the example He set, mark the inception of a system that has sustained humankind for centuries.


From the earliest days of the Church, Christians cared for the sick and needy. Saint Stephen, the first martyr, was charged with looking after widows and the elderly who had no one to care for them, according to the Acts of the Apostles.

Early Christians saved babies – mostly female infants – whom pagan Romans had discarded, to be left to die. The belief that each and every human life is sacred was a basic belief of Christianity, and infused early Christians' practice of their Faith.

In an early Christian book called the Didache, also known as "Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles," it is written, "you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide."

In daily life, Christians distinguished themselves by caring for one another, as well as for non-Christians – behavior unique in the annals of religions, and marveled at by pagans.


Hospitals — or houses of God (Domus Dei in Latin), as they were referred to in the Middle Ages — are a strictly Christian invention.

In the 4th century, Pachomius (c. 292-348), a Roman soldier, was so amazed by the kindness and care Christians extended to non-Christians who were injured and dying on the battlefield, that he was inspired to eventually become a Christian himself. He went on to establish one of the earliest monastic orders, influencing other religious associations – like the Benedictines – that followed him.

Saint Basil the Great founded one of the first hospitals in 369 AD just outside the city of Caesarea. Staffed with trained doctors and nurses, the large medical complex included a home for the infirm and elderly, as well as a hospice for lepers, who were considered untouchable by non-Christians.

Around 400 AD, St. Fabiola, a Roman physician, established a hospital in Rome, dedicating the center to alleviating the suffering of the capital city's residents. She personally tended to the sick and ailing.

Over time, the number of hospitals mushroomed. Their growth paralleled the expanding network of monasteries and convents, where rooms and resources were set aside to serve the sick and suffering.

"Care for the sick as you would care for Christ Himself."

Eventually the religious orders began building hospitals outside the confines of their convents and monasteries, but the constant remained: to follow the mandate and example of Jesus, emphasizing the idea that their role was that of servant to the sick.

Augustinian monks, whose expressed aim was "to care for the sick as they would Christ," founded London's oldest hospitals – St. Bartholomew's and St. Thomas' – in the 12th and 13th centuries, respectively.

The former, St. Bart's as it is now known (or just "Bart's," among the predominant secularists), was unusual in retaining its religious staff after Henry VIII destroyed almost every other Catholic institution inside his realm.

English healthcare suffered greatly after Henry's purge (1536-1541), but St. Bart's was the exception. With its combination of Augustinian nuns and lay staff, it is where William Harvey, in the 17th century, made one of medicine's most important discoveries — the circulation of blood.

It's important to note that the Church, often targeted for being anti-scientific, consistently has championed rational medicine – in combination with prayer – often finding itself at odds with practitioners of magic and superstition.

It was primarily Catholic countries that maintained serious medical care in post-Reformation Europe. Martin Luther (1483-1546) reportedly tried to remove nuns and other women from hospitals "so that they could make decent wives for deserving males." 

It's interesting to note that the French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), the infamous anti-Catholic propagandist of the so-called Enlightenment era, was forced to acknowledge the contributions of nuns to society:

"Perhaps there is nothing greater on earth than the sacrifice of youth and beauty, often of high birth, made by the gentle sex in order to work in hospitals for the relief of human misery, the sight of which is so revolting to our delicacy. Peoples separated from the Roman religion have imitated but imperfectly so generous a charity."

According to one source, by the mid-1500s, there were 37,000 Benedictine monasteries alone that cared for the sick.


Padre Pio (1887-1968), the Italian stigmatist and priest-saint, is often known for his exhortation: "Pray, hope, and don't worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer."

But lesser-known is the Capuchin's founding of a hospital called "Home for the Relief of Suffering" (Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza) in San Giovanni Rotondo, a town in southern Italy.

The Casa, as it is abbreviated, opened its doors in 1956 as a 300-bed facility; and now houses over one thousand beds with services comparable to most academic research centers of excellence.

Considered a model of Catholic healthcare, it operates in one of the poorest and most remote areas of Italy; yet it has grown into a regional referral center of international renown.

Padre Pio considered the hospital his primary "Work" on earth, inspired by Jesus and blessed by God as a haven for all those in corporal and/or spiritual pain.

Like Christian caregivers throughout the centuries, the saint considered prayer – both by and for the patients – an integral part of the healing process.


In America, Catholic nuns and priests established various houses for the sick and needy; with the women religious taking the lead in many cases.

Nuns worked alongside doctors in the American Civil War, treating both Union and Confederate soldiers. It is reported that by the early 20th century, more than 800 hospitals founded by nuns were in operation in the United States.

Named for the color of their habits, the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart were called to the US from Canada in the mid-1800s to found a hospital and orphanage in Toledo, Ohio.

Their dedication to Christ's mandate, coupled with their unrelenting hard work, fueled the growth of the facility, which today is known as St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center.

Another group of nuns made their mark on Rochester, Minnesota, after a tornado devastated the city in 1883. In the wake of the disaster, local physician, Dr. W.W. Mayo, was overwhelmed by the number of the injured, so he sought help from Catholic women religious. True to form, they answered the call.  

One of the nuns, Mother Alfred Moes, eventually teamed up with Dr. Mayo to build St. Mary's Hospital. Serving a tremendous number of patients, the facility eventually gave rise to the famed Mayo Clinic. Observers noted that it was the faith, hard work and discipline of Mother Alfred and the other nuns that laid the foundation for the effort.

In the 1930s, Dr. Bob Smith, a physician recovering from alcoholism, met Sr. Mary Ignatia Gavin (1889-1966) at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio.


Dr. Smith saw in the nun not only a propensity for Christian care, but a predisposition to help alcoholics, as well. Their alliance eventually resulted in the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous, a service that has gone on to help millions of alcoholics worldwide.

Sister Mary Ignatia was known to give each of the thousands of patients who left her care a little badge of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, asking each recipient to return the badge before they ever took a drink again. The nun was so beloved that she was referred to as the "Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous."


Among the armies of Catholics who have given their all to others, as Jesus Himself did, one of the most notable standouts is Fr. Damien of Molokai (1840-1889).

In the 1800s, the Hawaiian government decided to ship people afflicted with leprosy to the remote island of Molokai in an attempt to halt the spread of the horrific disease.

The island's leprous exiles issued a plea for a priest to be sent to tend to their spiritual needs. Father Damien of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary volunteered, making his way to the island in 1873.

What he found has been described as "a hell of despair." But by tending to both the physical and spiritual needs of the people, Fr. Damien helped build a community where the people discovered new reasons for living in Christ. The "once lawless place had now become a place where the law of love prevailed," as once source puts it.

The priest credited the Holy Eucharist with giving him the grace to persevere in his work. "It is at the foot of the altar that we find the strength we need in our isolation," he wrote.

Father Damien contracted leprosy in 1885. He came to identify with his fellow sufferers completely, beginning his addresses with "We lepers ...". After four years of anguish, he succumbed to the disease in 1889 at the age of 49.

Father Damien was canonized a saint in 2009.


Set in motion by Christ Himself, the Church's two-thousand-year legacy of treating ailments of both soul and body is an unbroken thread weaving itself through the fabric of Western Civilization.

It stands as a shining testament to the power of Christ's love. It confirms the grace given to those who devote themselves to fulfilling His mandate – to loving one another as He loved us, even unto death. It affirms an eternal truth expressed by St. Paul, "And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity."

Dr. Barbara Toth has a doctorate in rhetoric and composition from Bowling Green State University. She has taught at universities in the US, China and Saudi Arabia. Her work in setting up a writing center at Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahmen University, an all-women's university in Riyadh, has been cited in American journals. Toth has published academic and non-academic articles and poems internationally.

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That is such a disgrace that now where the atheists have taken over, the Christian response to caring for the sick is forbidden, with disastrous results. You basically torture the patient to death with kidnappings, injections, pills, electroshock, sexual abuse and deprivations. And they call this behavioral health. Family who are religious, especially Catholic, are generally barred from visiting and religious actvity, such as prayer, is frowned on or forbidden. This is what you get when you adopt atheism as your country's religion. This is the reason my grandmother and twin brother were electroshocked and abused by doctors till they could barely function.

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