Padre Pio’s Hospital – The Home for the Relief of Suffering
In July 1916, Father Paolino of Casacalenda, the superior of Our Lady of Grace monastery in San Giovanni Rotondo, traveled to the Capuchin monastery of St. Anne in Foggia in order to preach for the feast of St. Anne. Padre Pio lived at St. Anne’s monastery at that time. During his visit, Father Paolino noticed the poor state of Padre Pio’s health. He was extremely weak and frail and was unable to keep any food on his stomach. At that time, he was also suffering from the intense summer heat in Foggia.
Padre Paolino invited Padre Pio to visit the Capuchin community in San Giovanni Rotondo, thinking that the change of climate might do him good. Padre Pio accepted the invitation with gratitude. At the time, Padre Pio was twenty-nine years old.
Our Lady of Grace monastery in San Giovanni Rotondo was one of the poorest and oldest monasteries that the Capuchins possessed. It was also one of the most isolated foundations in the province. A profound silence surrounded the old whitewashed monastery and the small church that was attached to it. In the distance, the clang of sheep bells could be heard as shepherds took their flocks to graze on the mountain just behind. People from the town rarely walked up the long dirt path to the top of the hill in order to attend Mass at Our Lady of Grace.
Padre Pio loved the solitude and peace that the monastery provided, saying to one of his confreres, “The silence here is beautiful.” He also enjoyed the Capuchin community of priests and brothers who lived at Our Lady of Grace and they in turn enjoyed his company.
Padre Paolino wrote a letter to Padre Agostino who was in residence at the Capuchin monastery in Foggia, giving him an update on Padre Pio’s visit. He wrote:
He is happy with us, with the air, the residence, the quiet, the solitude, and everything. And with the exception of the interior trials with which the Lord tries him, it can be said truly that he is happy . . . We ourselves are very happy with him.
While in San Giovanni Rotondo, Padre Pio felt the beneficial effects of breathing the fresh mountain air. The higher altitude seemed to agree with him and the cooler climate was a welcome break from the hot weather in Foggia. In the eight days that Padre Pio spent there, his health showed a marked improvement.
When Padre Pio returned to Foggia, he asked for permission to make another trip to San Giovanni Rotondo. He wrote to the Provincial and said:
I am going to ask a favor of you and I ask it because Jesus compels me to. He tells me that I must strengthen my body a bit in order to be ready for other trials to which he intends to subject me. The favor I want to ask is to let me spend some time in San Giovanni Rotondo, where Jesus assures me I will feel better. I ask you not to refuse me this charity. (Letters I)
Padre Pio received the permission from his superior and returned to the monastery of Our Lady of Grace in September 1916. He would live with the Capuchins there for the next fifty-two years.
The people who lived in San Giovanni Rotondo were mostly poor farmers and manual laborers. It was hard for them to eke out a living in the impoverished area. San Giovanni Rotondo, which was considered to be one of the most backward regions of southern Italy, lacked even the most basic health care for its residents. If a person had a medical emergency, the only recourse was to go to the small hospital in Foggia, some twenty-five miles away. It was generally a twelve-hour journey by horse and cart on a dirt road that was very difficult to travel. Many sick people died on the way to the hospital.
Padre Pio heard many tragic stories regarding far too many people who lost their lives because of the inadequate health care in San Giovanni Rotondo. One man, who had a terrible accident, was taken to the hospital in Foggia for emergency treatment. Unfortunately, no beds were available at the time he was admitted. He was placed on a cot in the hall and had to wait more than a week before being treated for his injuries. Word got back to Padre Pio about the incident and he became very upset. Unfortunately, the man’s story was not unique. Padre Pio knew that something had to be done to remedy the situation. He continuously thought about the need for a hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo.
Along with the help of several collaborators, Padre Pio opened a small hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo in 1925. He named it the St. Francis hospital in honor of his spiritual father, St. Francis of Assisi. With only two wards and twenty beds, the hospital was very inefficient according to modern standards. An earthquake in 1938 caused so much damage to the structure, that the little hospital finally had to close its doors for good.
The lack of adequate health care in San Giovanni Rotondo continued to be a serious problem. As more and more people learned of Padre Pio, they visited Our Lady of Grace monastery in increasing numbers. Many were suffering from serious and often life-threatening illnesses. It was obvious to Padre Pio that San Giovanni Rotondo needed a hospital that would be able to provide, not only for the medical needs of the residents, but also for the pilgrims who visited. Padre Pio felt strongly that the future hospital would have to be large and fully-equipped, with state-of-the-art technology that could handle medical emergencies of any kind.
When Padre Pio discussed his dream of building a hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo, many people scoffed at the idea and considered it to be absurd. A number of reasons were put forth as to why it would not work: Padre Pio’s religious community did not have the financial resources for such an undertaking; the population of San Giovanni Rotondo was too small to justify the building of a large hospital; people would not want to come to a hospital in such a remote and isolated location; the rocky and mountainous region, sometimes referred to as a “graveyard” was not suitable to build on; Italy was in the midst of an economic crisis; it was the wrong time and the wrong place to consider such a monumental undertaking. In the minds of many, the hospital project was doomed to failure.
The objections that Padre Pio heard regarding the hospital did not discourage him. If anything, the objections caused him to desire the hospital even more. He knew that if he waited until the “right moment” when everything was in good order, the hospital would never be built. “It is so pressing that we do something for the sick people here in San Giovanni Rotondo,” he said to a friend. The need for a hospital was constantly before his mind. “We will do it with the help of God,” he often repeated.
One day, Capuchin Father Alberto D’Apolito brought a man who was sick to see Padre Pio. Padre Pio’s heart was deeply touched when he met the man. He felt very sorry for him. He gave the man his priestly blessing and assured him of his prayers. After the man left, Father Alberto heard Padre Pio quietly pray, “Oh God, there is so much suffering, so much sickness. Please take away the sufferings of that poor man and give them to me.” Padre Pio became ill right after he prayed. Father Alberto learned later that the man had made a complete recovery.
In his own life, Padre Pio knew, not only physical suffering, but spiritual suffering as well. “I endure terrible hours of sadness,” he once wrote to his spiritual director. His own trials enabled him to have great compassion for those who were sick, especially children. Sometimes he seemed almost paralyzed by the suffering he saw all around him. He often cried unashamedly for those who were ill.
Padre Pio continued to work out the step by step plans for the hospital. He carefully chose the men and women who would play key roles in the leadership and administration of the hospital. There is reason to believe that Padre Pio had certain people marked out for the tasks before they had even met him. To the casual observer, his selection of certain individuals seemed on occasion, to be impractical. But time and time again, his judgment proved to be correct.
Dr. Guglielmo Sanguinetti was one of the men who was hand-picked by Padre Pio to play a major role in the construction of the hospital. Dr. Sanguinetti’s introduction to Padre Pio came about in an unusual way. One day, Dr. Sanguinetti asked his wife, Emilia, what kind of a gift she would like for their wedding anniversary. Emilia told him that more than anything else, she would like to go to San Giovanni Rotondo to see Padre Pio. Dr. Sanguinetti met the idea with great resistance. “Emilia, please don’t ask me to take you there,” Dr. Sanguinetti said. “Ask me for anything but that. You know how much I dislike religion!” As a fallen-away Catholic, he made a conscious effort to stay far away from churches and any type of religious gatherings. He especially made an effort to distance himself from priests. But he had asked his dear wife what she wanted for an anniversary gift and he felt that he had to honor her wishes. He finally agreed to take her to San Giovanni Rotondo.
Visiting the church of Our Lady of Grace and meeting Padre Pio turned out to be a far different experience than what Dr. Sanguinetti had expected. He attended Mass and the following day had the desire to make his confession to Padre Pio. He had not been to confession in twenty-five years.
Not long after, Dr. Sanguinetti made a second trip to visit Padre Pio. Padre Pio then told the doctor about his desire to have a hospital built in San Giovanni Rotondo. He urged the doctor to move to San Giovanni Rotondo and help him. “You will be the doctor who will help supervise the building project,” Padre Pio said to Dr. Sanguinetti. The doctor was dumbstruck. “But that would be impossible!” Dr. Sanguinetti replied. “I am neither an architect nor an engineer. I am a physician. My study has been the human body, not buildings. I know nothing about buildings.” “Don’t worry about that,” Padre Pio said. “That will all be taken care of.” “Still, it is unthinkable,” Dr. Sanguinetti answered. “I am a country doctor. I cannot afford to retire from my medical practice in Mugello. I do not have the financial means.”
Padre Pio then asked Dr. Sanguinetti to explain to him in detail, the particulars of his financial situation. Dr. Sanguinetti told Padre Pio that he earned a modest salary but had no investments and few assets. Padre Pio made light of his financial situation. “Don’t worry. All of those matters will be worked out,” Padre Pio replied. “You will soon be receiving a ticket. You will see.” Dr. Sanguinetti had no idea what Padre Pio was speaking of when he talked about a “ticket.” He gave the matter no further thought.
Dr. Sanguinetti and his wife continued to visit Padre Pio from time to time. Whenever they visited, Padre Pio always asked them when they would be moving to San Giovanni Rotondo permanently. “Never,” was the answer that was in Dr. Sanguinetti’s mind and heart. He had no intention of moving to San Giovanni Rotondo. The whole idea seemed absurd.
Padre Pio told Dr. Sanguinetti that he would one day practice medicine in San Giovanni Rotondo. He also told him that he would keep very busy with the actual building work of the hospital. He was specific in detail as well, even as to the type of truck the doctor would use while supervising at the construction site. He also told him that he would have a driver who would take him where he needed to go. To Dr. Sanguinetti, they were very strange statements, and he did not know what to make of them. Sometimes it seemed like Padre Pio was joking, and at other times, he seemed perfectly serious.
Even if Dr. and Mrs. Sanguinetti did not always understand Padre Pio, there was no denying that they felt the unmistakable spiritual blessings of being in his presence. They also felt his protection on numerous occasions, especially during the time of the Second World War. During the war, more than fifty bombs had exploded in their town. One day, Emilia Sanguinetti expressed her deep fears to Padre Pio. “You will be protected,” Padre Pio said to her. As the war continued, all of the surrounding houses in their neighborhood were either destroyed or badly damaged. Not one bomb ever touched their home.
One day, Dr. Sanguinetti was surprised to get a call from his bank. He was informed that one of his government bonds drew a very large sum of money in the state bond lottery. It happened on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. He remembered that Padre Pio had spoken of a “ticket” that would come to him. Dr. Sanguinetti saw the hand of God in the unexpected financial gain. After he gave up his medical practice, he and his wife moved to San Giovanni Rotondo. Right away he started working in earnest with Padre Pio on the plans for the hospital. Each one of the prophecies that Padre Pio had made to him would be realized in the years ahead.
Dr. Carlo Kisvarday, a chemist from Zara, Yugoslavia, also played a key role in the early development of the hospital. He first learned of Padre Pio when he and his wife Mary were making a trip to Germany to see the famed stigmatist and mystic, Therese Neumann. Therese had a reputation for holiness which drew thousands to travel to her home in the small farming town of Konnersreuth. Her life was dedicated totally to God. Many who met her described her as having a childlike purity and humility that was very uplifting to the spirit.
Therese was making plans to join the Missionary Sisters of St. Benedict when she was struck down by an accident on the family farm. After the accident, her health took a sharp decline and she soon became bedridden. Concerning the tragic turn of events in her life, she showed heroic acceptance of the will of God. Later, she had a vision of Christ kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane and she heard his prayers. When Christ turned and looked at her, she felt a very sharp pain in her heart. It was the first imprint of the stigmata. Later, she would receive the wounds of Christ in her hands and feet as well. Like Padre Pio, Therese Neumann was a victim soul who offered her sufferings in reparation to the Lord. After her death in 1962, Padre Pio told a friend, John Sienna, that Therese often assisted him from heaven.
Dr. Kisvarday and his wife were very close to Konnersreuth when they made a short detour. A stranger happened to strike up a conversation with them and told them a few facts about Padre Pio. Dr. Kisvarday became so intrigued that he decided to change course and to travel the eight hundred miles to San Giovanni Rotondo. Feeling a kind of urgency, he cut the conversation short and left immediately for his new destination.
When Padre Pio met the doctor, he hugged him and held him close to his heart. Dr. Kisvarday could not explain it but he had the strange feeling that Padre Pio had been expecting him. One month later, Dr. Kisvarday made a second visit to the monastery. “I want you to make your home here,” Padre Pio said to Dr. Kisvarday. “I want you here beside me.” Dr. Kisvarday ran out of the monastery to tell his wife the good news. “Mary, Padre Pio just told me that he wants us to move here!” Dr. Kisvarday said. “He wants us to live close to him and help him with the hospital!” Mary Kisvarday was just as happy as her husband was. Dr. Kisvarday and his wife were able to build a home very close to the monastery. As time passed, the doctor’s love for Padre Pio became so strong that he felt like he never wanted to be parted from him.
Many of those who were chosen by Padre Pio to be the organizers of his great work were willing to leave the security of a good job, a steady income, and a comfortable lifestyle. They were ready to work without a salary on a monumental project that would take years to complete and there was no guarantee that the project would be completed. Why were people willing to give up so much and work so hard? It was because of their esteem for Padre Pio. He had asked for their help and they wanted to help him. They felt honored to be called to the task.
Dr. Mario Sanvico, an industrialist from Perugia, Italy was another one of the pioneers of the hospital. Like Dr. Sanguinetti and Dr. Kisvarday, Dr. Sanvico was chosen by Padre Pio to have an important role in the first beginnings of the hospital. After much discussion with Padre Pio, Dr. Sanvico called a committee meeting on January 9, 1940 to formalize the plans. Padre Pio was named founder of the hospital. It was decided that Dr. Sanvico would act as secretary. Dr. Sanguinetti would be the Technical Medical Director. As time passed, Dr. Sanguinetti also worked as the building foreman, driver, adviser, and editor of a popular publication regarding the hospital. Dr. Carlo Kisvarday was designated to be the accountant and treasurer. The Director of Internal Affairs was Miss Ida Seitz. It was understood that Padre Pio would have to approve all decisions made by the committee before any action could be taken.
Later on in the day, Dr. Sanvico and Dr. Kisvardy visited Padre Pio in his cell and reported to him all that had transpired in the committee meeting. Padre Pio was very happy with the news and said, “This evening my earthly work has begun. I bless you and all those who will contribute to this work.” Dr. Sanvico and Dr. Kisvardy knelt as Padre Pio spoke to them. Padre Pio wanted to make the first offering for the hospital. He took a coin out of his pocket and handed it to the two doctors. Pietruccio Cugino, Padre Pio’s longtime friend, made the second humble donation. Padre Pio spoke to the men from his heart and said:
To God we owe all our love, which, to be adequate, ought to be infinite . . . We must at least give our whole being to love, to charity . . . To carry out this ideal of Our Lord, we must be quite forgetful of self. Rising above selfishness, we must bow down to the sufferings and the wounds of our fellow men. We must make them our own, knowing how to suffer with our brethren for the love of God. We must know how to instill hope into their hearts and bring back a smile to their lips, having restored a ray of light into their souls. Then we shall be offering God the most beautiful, the most noble of prayers, because our prayer will have sprung from sacrifice.
Shortly after the first committee meeting, Dr. Sanvico asked Padre Pio what name he planned to give the hospital. Padre Pio said that he would think about it. Three days later, he told Dr. Sanvico the name he had decided on -the Home for the Relief of Suffering. During the time of the Second World War, the plans for the construction of the hospital had to be put on hold. But Padre Pio never lost sight of his dream. He waited and continued to pray.
When the war finally came to a close, Padre Pio pressed for immediate action. He urged his good friend, Father Giuseppe (Peppino) Orlando to help him. Padre Pio had known Father Peppino from the early days, when they had both lived in Pietrelcina. Padre Pio used to frequently repeat to Father Peppino, “We must start the work on the hospital now, Father Peppino!” “But we’re not ready. We don’t even have a blueprint or a design drawn up. Everyone will laugh at us!” Father Peppino would reply. However, Padre Pio was persistent. He would frequently nudge Father Peppino with his elbow and say, “Peppino, when are we going to start the work? We must get started!” Although the amount of money that had been collected for the project was much smaller than hoped for, Padre Pio felt an urgency to begin.
On occasion, Father Peppino would try to avoid Padre Pio, knowing that the future hospital would always be the topic of his conversation. Finally, Padre Pio won out. One day Father Peppino said to him, “Ok, I will do what you have asked me to do. Tomorrow I will begin. I will start work on the road.” Father Peppino bought two skeins of string, and gathering twenty laborers together, he began to prepare the road. Each day, Padre Pio watched the workers from his monastery window and was elated to see the progress of the building of the road. In the evenings, when Father Peppino came in from the work site, he was covered in dust. Padre Pio, with great satisfaction, would always make it a point to brush off the dust from his cassock.
Angelo Lupi of Pescara, Italy was chosen to be the chief designer and builder of the hospital. He had been selected over many others who wanted the job. He was talented and hard-working and was considered by many to be a genius in his field. Although he was the principal designer, Angelo Lupi did not have a diploma or a degree in architecture. For that reason, he seemed to be a risky choice. He was frequently doubtful about his ability. He was also worried about the lack of proper equipment and materials for such a huge undertaking. For his drawing board, Angelo used an ordinary kitchen table. He knew that he would have to improvise on many occasions and use all of his creative abilities in order to see the work to its completion.
Angelo Lupi shared his anxieties about the project with Padre Pio who simply listened and smiled. “Padre Pio,” Lupi said, “I feel daunted by this huge undertaking. I don’t even have a degree in architecture and I am being criticized because of it.” Some people had reported Lupi to the authorities because he did not have the appropriate certification. “Do not worry about what people say,” Padre Pio told him. “The person who complained about you has received his degree from men. But you have received your degree from God.” Padre Pio was always there to encourage him and to dispel his fears. Later, Angelo Lupi was awarded an honorary degree.
One of Padre Pio’s spiritual daughters, Maria Basilio, donated the land that the hospital was to be built on. The location was right next to the monastery of Our Lady of Grace. Maria was a wealthy woman who lived in Turin. She met Padre Pio in the early days, shortly after he was transferred to San Giovanni Rotondo. When Maria decided that she wanted to live closer to Padre Pio, he advised her to buy the land that was next to the monastery. It seems certain that Padre Pio was guided, even then, to lay the plans for what was to come in the future. Step by step, he prepared for the “great work” of the hospital, down to the last detail.
Cleonice Morcaldi, another one of Padre Pio’s spiritual daughters, once saw Padre Pio standing in front of the desolate mountainside on the spot where the future hospital would one day be built. With deep concentration, he gazed silently at the mountain, and then, touching his fingers to his lips, he blew a kiss to the area.
The designated place where the hospital was to be built posed many problems for Angelo Lupi. For one thing, the Mount Gargano region was greatly lacking in natural resources. The aqueduct of Apulia was tapped for a supply of water. To obtain even more water, Lupi built large cisterns to collect rain water. A homemade power plant was used to produce electricity. A lime kiln was built in order to extract the lime that was needed for the plaster. It was an exciting day for the people of San Giovanni Rotondo when Padre Pio came down to the work site in order to bless the lime kiln. Later a stone-crushing machine was acquired.
Tons of the mountainside had to be blasted with dynamite. For many months, explosions were set off twice each day. At times, as many as 350 men were at work on the mountain under the direction of Angelo Lupi. They shoveled, dug, and broke up the stony ground with their pick axes and sledgehammers. Farmers, shepherds, former servicemen, and even ex-convicts were hired for the labor-intensive work.
A carpentry area and a mechanical workshop were soon added to the building site. The simple farmers, shepherds, and others, were taught the skills of bricklayers, painters, blacksmiths, and woodworkers. While much of Italy suffered from unemployment, there was no unemployment problem in San Giovanni Rotondo. The poor people in the area were deeply grateful for the steady employment which enabled them to provide for their families. With great joy, Padre Pio continued to watch the progression of the work from his monastery window.
During the years that the hospital was being built, the spiritual development of the construction workers was always provided for. A special Mass was held on the first Friday of each month. At the end of the day, a large bell was sounded and summoned all who were involved with the work for the hospital to the church for Mass.
Difficulties were encountered in all stages of the construction work. But those difficulties paled in comparison to the problem of the lack of money. Dr. Kisvarday, who was in charge of the accounts, felt a growing anxiety. He meticulously recorded all donations in an ordinary school copy book. For the most part, the donations that were received were quite modest. The citizens of the town had little extra money to give, even to such a worthy cause.
Members of the hospital committee tried to think of creative ways to solve the money problem. Lotteries, raffles and other fund-raisers were held. Plays with spiritual themes were presented and the proceeds were given to the hospital. Almost every shop in San Giovanni Rotondo possessed a small donation box for the hospital.
Padre Pio made it clear that he would not consider taking out loans to finance the hospital. He advised that the work should be done gradually, as the money came in. When the donations slowed, so did the work. He always saw the work of the hospital as supported by prayer. “This is God’s work,” he would repeat. “It is not mine. God will see to the money.”
Nevertheless, Dr. Sanguinetti, Dr. Kisvarday, and Dr. Sanvico became deeply concerned about the lack of funds. After much analysis of the incoming donations and the outgoing expenses, they realized that there would not be enough money to build the hospital. It seemed that the whole project was doomed to failure. However, through the blessing of Divine Providence, things were about to change.
Barbara Ward, the British journalist and economist visited San Giovanni Rotondo in 1948. Some of Barbara’s friends in Rome had told her about Padre Pio and she had a great desire to meet him. With great interest, she viewed the construction work that was being done for the hospital.
During her visit to the monastery, Barbara was able to speak to Padre Pio briefly. She talked to him about her fiancé, Commander Robert Jackson. “I would like to ask for your prayers. I am engaged to be married,” Barbara said. “My fiancé, Robert, is a Protestant and I am a Catholic. I would like Robert to be converted to Catholicism.” “If it is the Lord’s will, he will be,” Padre Pio answered. “But when will it be?” Barbara asked. “If it is the Lord’s will, right now,” Padre Pio replied.
When Barbara returned to London, she was surprised to find that Robert had already been received into the Catholic Church. He explained to Barbara that he was walking past the Jesuit parish in the city of Mayfair one day when he suddenly felt a great longing to go inside. Once inside, he called for the parish priest and explained that he wished to take instructions in the Catholic faith. This occurred on the day that Barbara had spoken to Padre Pio about her desire for Robert to become Catholic.
Barbara told her fiancé about her visit to Padre Pio’s monastery and the important work of the Home for the Relief of Suffering. She asked him if he might be able to find a way to assist Padre Pio. Robert was the deputy director of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). The goal of UNRRA was to give aide for purposes of redevelopment to countries that had suffered from the war. Italy had definitely suffered from the war.
Robert set about to present a summary of the hospital’s need for financial aid. The project was brought before the U.S. Congress and was approved. UNRRA designated 400 million lire to the Home for the Relief of Suffering. Of that sum, the Italian government took 150 million lire. Padre Pio was very upset by the government’s actions, considering it a great impropriety to take part of the funds that had been designated to the hospital. The hospital received 250 million lire which was still a huge sum of money in 1948. Barbara and Robert stepped in at the right time. With the grant, the work would be able to continue until the hospital was completed.
In consideration of the large gift that had been given, UNRRA requested that Padre Pio name the hospital, the Fiorello Henry La Guardia Hospital. Fiorello La Guardia, who had died a short time before, had been UNRRA’s Director General and was considered to be one of its most outstanding benefactors. Padre Pio had already decided on the name that he wanted for the hospital and he would not agree to change it. He did however, have a large plaque with an inscription of gratitude and a dedication to Fiorello LaGuardia erected in the Home.
In 1950, when Barbara visited San Giovanni Rotondo again, she was delighted to see how the work had progressed and how the grant funds had been used. A big surprise awaited her when she went into the hospital’s chapel. There, in one of the beautiful stained glass windows, the artist had etched Barbara’s face to portray the face of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Barbara’s lovely face, which revealed kindness and great compassion, was the perfect model for the chapel’s Madonna window. Because of her very important financial assistance, Barbara Ward was frequently referred to as the “godmother” of the hospital.
Not everyone who learned of Padre Pio’s great work had the exemplary qualities that Barbara Ward possessed. One family in San Giovanni Rotondo decided to raise funds for the future hospital. However, their intentions were far from honorable. Instead of turning the donations over to the hospital, they used the money to build a home for themselves. Soon Padre Pio was informed about the matter. The next day, their brand-new house collapsed on its foundations.
To Be Continued
Padre Pio Devotions Publications:
Pray, Hope and Don’t Worry: True Stories of Padre Pio Book 1
Pray, Hope and Don’t Worry: True Stories of Padre Pio Book II