Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 27, 2006
Mexican oasis of peace honours St. John of God
Once a high living soldier, St. John of God devoted his life to the downtrodden
St. John of God – March 8
- Photo by Ted Fitzgerald
This artwork depicts San Juan rescuing hospital patients from a fire.
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Visitors to southern Mexico's state capital of Oaxaca are universally drawn to the city's twin downtown markets.
Block-square Mercado Juarez offers shoppers almost anything they can imagine in the way of arts, crafts and souvenirs.
Here, they experience the necessity of snaking single-file along tortuous corridors hemmed in by living walls of merchandise and vendors, assailed on all sides by a cacophony of foreign sounds in a sea of brilliant colour.
Fortunately, for those intimidated by this constant activity, there is relief. A respite for beleaguered shoppers and vendors is close at hand in the quiet of an ancient church dedicated to the Spanish St. John of God.
It faces onto 20 de Noviembre Street across Aldama and is crammed into a corner of the city's block-square produce market.
With its red brick bell tower and contrasting sombre grey stone walls, Templo y Exconvento de San Juan de Dios occupies the site of the city's first house of God, a 1521 adobe structure.
This was replaced 14 years later by Oaxaca's first cathedral and when that was severely damaged by an earthquake, the present church was built in 1703. Today's cathedral dominates the Zocalo, four blocks away.
Leaving the bustle and noise of the street, visitors to the church first encounter a small shrine dedicated to Oaxaca's patron, Our Lady of Solitude. Clothed in her traditional black, jewel encrusted robes, Mary's life-size statue faces out towards the street above a kneeler regularly occupied by several supplicant Oaxaquenos.
Beyond this, and covering the interior walls are a series of large paintings designed to provide a lesson in the religious history of Oaxaca. One that dominates the south nave wall dramatically portrays the character of the parish patron, Juan de Dios. It shows him assisting two patients as they flee a fire in his Spanish hospital.
San Juan was a true follower of Christ who took Jesus' directives literally and devoted his life to caring for the less fortunate in his adopted city of Grenada.
He spent the first half of his life abandoning his faith and living a dissolute life as a soldier.
Later, he experienced re-conversion during a visit to the great Shrine of Santiago Compostela, was prevented from travelling to Africa to ransom Christian slaves, and scraped out a living selling holy cards and books.
Rescued from a bout of madness by St. John of Avila, he experienced visions, resolved to live exclusively to help others, and invited the sick, homeless and poor into his little house where he fed and cared for all.
Then, alerted by public admiration for his work, Grenada's bishop vested Juan in clerical garb, named him John of God and in 1540 obtained a hospital for him to manage.
His whole being went into this venture. He relished abuse and problems created by his sometimes unruly patients and actively solicited help from local benefactors to keep the facility operating.
Juan died in 1550 at age 55 shortly after rescuing a drowning man and was canonized in 1690.
After his death, many of those he had rescued formed the Order of Brothers Hospitallers which was recognized in 1571 as a religious congregation by Pope Pius V.
John was named a patron of the sick, nurses, hospitals, booksellers and printers in 1886.