A Cuban charity hero

Por Dr. Roberto Méndez Martínez


Fray Olallo Valdés, of the Hospital Order of San Juan de Dios, was beatified, when very little was left for 120 years of his transit to the Father’s house. The Eucharistic celebration, it took place in Camaguey, where the blessed lived almost his entire existence, on November 29, 2008 and served as a framework for the promulgation of the apostolic self, in which His Holiness Benedict XVI (now Pope Emeritus) invited the members of his Order and the Cuban faithful to venerate as Blessed of the Church a man who served his neighbour to the extreme of his forces , with humility and self-abandonment.

Although the process for his beatification lasted only about 19 years, if it has been counted since March 1989, when the then Bishop of Camaguey Msgr. Adolfo Rodríguez Herrera, during the commemorative events of the centenary of the death of Father Olallo, asked the Superior General of the Hospital Order Br. Brian O’Donnell to promote a Cause, to initiate it, the divine will did not provide for this to be the first Blessed Born on the Island. The then pontiff beatified the year before José López Piteira, born in 1913 in Jatibonico, then province and diocese of Camaguey, son of Galician parents, who returned shortly after to his homeland, seminarian of the order of the Augustinians in El Escorial and martyred along with a part of the friars of that monastery in November 1936 , during the Spanish Civil War. However, Olallo is the first Cuban whose heroic virtues permeated the land of this island – from which he never left – and in which he left a strong impassion not only in popular devotion, but in its history and culture.

If the life of Olallo Valdés is sobering – and in this coincides the biographers it already has – it is because all of it is focused not on a succession of prodigious facts, but on its patient and daily consecration to care for the sick of the Hospital of San Juan de Dios, in the most adverse conditions. No one remembers him as a visionary, nor an enlightened preacher, but as a discreet man, very pious, humble in the usual, energetic in what is necessary and his penances were not of cilium and disciplines, but naturally derived from the will to give himself all to alleviate the suffering of others, without attending to what would today be called “the realization of himself”. Precisely one of the cards of its burial monument in the General Cemetery of Camaguey reads: “To stop belonging to surrender everything whole to the one who moans in the bed of pain and misery, is to go after immortality without presenting it or wanting it.”

It is not necessary to tell in detail that existence, suffice it to extract the almond from it. Olallo was an exposition child, deposited on March 15, 1820 at casa Cuna de San José in Havana. It is known, by a role ieded to a must-have who wore in his clothes, who was born on February 12, 1820, but did not enter the name of his parents. As had been arranged by the founder of that pious work, Bishop Friar Jerome Valdés received that surname when he was taken out of the baptismal font.

You don’t need to be a psychologist to know that an orphanage, whatever its quality, is not the perfect substitute for home. Growing up without known parents is a traumatic event in anyone’s existence, yet it is striking that unlike many others, Olallo was never resentful of it, nor frustrated, but seemed to remember that passage from Psalm 27 (26), 10: “If my mother and father abandon me, the Lord will gather me” and even more, in their life of dedication to those in need , won the title of “Father”, which is still applied to him today, despite not being a priest. In what others found the basis for bitterness or for psychopathic attitudes, he found the opportunity for sanctification. He had no human family, no inheritance, no house to care for, his occupation would be to serve everyone equally.

He was supposed to have known about the Hospital Order perhaps in the wake of the great cholera epidemic in Havana in 1833, in which the brothers had to care for many sick people, including the children in exile and perhaps there was the mysterious seed of their vocation. As far as his profession is known was, around 1835, at the age of 15 and as was traditional in the order, perhaps coinciding with the Founder’s Feast, on March 8. But he was not without bitterness even at the very beginning of his religious life: a member of the Order, Friar José de la Luz Valdés first opposed, in Havana, the profession of the young man, considering him unworthy of it, moreover, when both were transferred to the Hospital of San Juan de Dios in Port-au-Prince, Fray José Prior was designated as a teacher and although the professed novel was humble and helpful , he described him, where they could hear him, as “lechuguino”, a name given at the time to superficial young people, dedicated to vanity and without any use. Olallo never expressed himself bitterly from his superior, much less tried – as in other cases has happened – to discredit him in the Habanera House or find a way away from him, but obeyed him in everything, looked after him with selflessness in his last illness and closed his eyes when he died in 1845. That “self-love” thing didn’t go with his strongly structured personality.

An unused friar

Olallo lived, from 1835 until his death, in the Hospital de San Juan de Dios, from this period, he was in a convent community truly structured until 1854. In 1857, as a result of the Laws of Exclaustration, the Order lost the administration of the hospital that passed into the hands of the Civil Lobby of the City and only two friars remain there: Manuel Torres and Olallo and, from 1876 until his death, he was left alone, not only there: in Havana the Hospital de la Orden was first closed , then the community closes and at the same time the same thing happens in the rest of America. Olallo was supposed to be the last of the Brothers serving on the Continent at the time of his death.

To this it should be added that, in accordance with the civil provisions derived from the Exclaustrating Laws, from 1857 he could not employ the habit in the Hospital and in fact he adopted a kind of Filipino or Guayabera with wide pockets – where he wore a rosary, a prayer book and the schedule of notes for the prescriptions of the inpatients – as a uniform of work. Shortly before he died, some princes managed to let himself be portrayed in his cell, in one of the images he appears in this ordinary dress and in another with the habit, the next time he would wear it would already be in his coffin, for with him he would be amorted.

Who was Olallo then? For the authorities an exclaustrated, even if he never asked for or accepted that condition. For the sick he was a “Father” even if he was not a priest. To himself, he was a layman dedicated to the charism of St. John of God, who lived according to the Hospital Rule even if there were no external details to prove it. Precisely, his holiness becomes more ostensible in this journey towards the essential: it is not of the Order by habit, nor by canonical structures, but because he wants to serve as his Founding Father to the homeless, from absolute poverty and dedication. It was a lamp lit throughout a continent, for decades, to show the vitality of the Hospital charism, until the time came for the restoration of the Order.

Cuban without exclusions

As a friar, Olallo was to depend on an Order whose provincial house was not on the island. In addition, as a religious, he was obliged to fidelity to the institution of the Royal Board of Trustees. As a civilian worker, from 1857, he owed obedience to the government on duty. However, for him being Cuban was a natural thing, but not exclusive. He, with his good natural sense, was not presented with these dichotomies lived by other friars of his time between serving a liberal government that passed exclaustrador laws and fidelity to Christ, let alone between a conservative and Spanish side and another independenceist, Creole and generally anti-clerical.

The Blessed serves everyone in the Hospital, the same as a Spanish soldier wounded in battle, as a Cuban who sufully takes him to heal without the authorities knowing. He doesn’t cater to creeds or factions, he all sees his own mourner. But he, usually meek and patient, more than once rebels against unfair orders.

At one of the most critical moments of the War of ’68, when colonial repression reached the very city of Port-au-Prince, he protested, to everyone’s surprise, the military order of the fearsome Brigadier Juan Ampudia to empty the institution to dedicate it solely to caring for wounded Spanish soldiers. He only agreed to send the less sick to their homes and the others stayed them as much as he could in a small hospital cell. He also refused to abide by the order to deny medical care to wounded Cubans who were persecuted by the Spanish authorities, although he knew that this could jeopardize his freedom and even his life, at a time of exalted passions.

According to the writer Flora Basulto de Montoya, in his book Tierra prosper, the friar once refused to abide by the military order for the bells to ring “a degueello” against the princes. If such a thing happened, it must have been on June 20, 1869, when Agramonte, with his troops, besieged the city, occupied for a few hours areas of the neighborhoods of Christ and St. Ramon, to obtain vituallas and panic in the authorities, although other authors believe that it happened much later, when it was known in the City, the fall in combat , before the troops of Agramonte, Lieutenant Colonel Abril, on 7 May 1873. Such a fact has not been demonstrated, but it would illustrate very well the attitude of the Father when there were many clerics in the city who from the pulpit described the Cuban independenceists as “criminals” and ignored the crimes of the volunteers and the “guerrillas”.

However, there is a trait of his that leaves him definitively inscribed in Cuban history and culture. On May 12, 1873, the corpse of Major Ignacio Agramonte, fell the day before in combat in Jimaguayú, enters the city of Port-au-Prince. His body is dumped in the Plaza de San Juan de Dios. Olallo makes him drive in parihuelas at the end of the hospital’s left corridor. The soldier and Spanish volunteers want to desecrate the body and even drag it through the streets. This is prevented by the friar and chaplain of Pbro Hospital. Manuel Martínez Saltage, brave Creole with an irreproachable life. Olallo, cleanses his face and both pray to him the prayers of the deceased, until the authorities decide to take the body to the General Cemetery.

Thus converge, in a decisive moment of formation of the Cuban, a hero of the wars of independence, jurist and military, paradigm of ethical integrity, for which homeland and religion were never exclusive and a man of God, for whom charity and justice should always go hand in hand. At a time when the religious issue was so subject to political manipulation, that scene was foundational for our nationality.

A popular saint

Olallo wasn’t a studio man. He had not completed higher medical studies. He learned in the hospitals of the Order in Havana and Port-au-Prince, empirically and reading some manuals of the time as Art of Nursing, as well as being guided for his work by the Constitutions of the Hospital Order, established in 1741 and adapted in 1799. He was considered at the time as a “surgeon”, that is, as a practitioner who can perform operations and care for patients without having passed the higher studies of “Latinist doctor”. It’s a reputation that he was adept at surgical interventions. Its case is preserved with the instruments it used. He was very ingenious to improve the conditions of his work, created in the Hospital a kind of tank that was heated with sunlight and allowed to have boiling water for disinfection of the instrument. He was able, in cases of urgency not only to do minor surgery, but also amputations.

As was the case at the time with brothers who were not clergy, he had no advanced studies of theology, and most likely his knowledge of Latin and Sacred Scripture was elementary, perhaps the minimums for praying canonical hours. But it is clear that the word of God took root in him and frequently meditated on it. There is no news that he left writings of a pious or intellectual nature. He was, above all, a man of service and prayer.

It is eloquent as tradition gathers a common day in its existence. At dawn, he visited all the sick in the hospital, made healings and collected the medical equipment to be disposed of or washed, which he personally did many times in the waters of the neighboring Hatibonico River. He would then prepare medicines in the dispensary and return with the sick, with the doctor, for the “visit pass”, where he noted the remedies that each needed. He supervised the delivery to the in-persons of all meals of the day. He also attended many external patients free of charge, kept hospital records, prepared herlas for bandages, and had time left to give reading and catechesis to poor children. As it got dark, he prayed the Rosary with the sick, went out to visit others in the surrounding area, or had a little chat in his cell. Before bed, he would go through the rooms again, bed by bed and go to bed, if there was no agonizer next to which he should watch.

As can be seen, he had little time for “social treatment”, however, those modest talks in his cell, in which the hospital staff participated, some sick in conditions of it, as the renowned local historian Juan Torres Lasquetti, became proverbial so entertaining and uplifting. But, moreover, some have recorded that he received in his cell many members of The Camagueyana society, who were seeking advice and who, thanks to this, many family crises or cases of conscience were able to resolve and appease struggles between families or rival sides.

It is striking that he was so admired by notable intellectuals such as Enrique José Varona, José Ramón de Betancourt and Juan Torres Lasquetti, although they all had a rather anti-clerical social projection, but more so is the devotion paid to him by many simple people, who in life admired him and after his death transmitted from generation to generation his reputation for holiness. In fact, the chapel of the Hospital of San Juan de Dios, even if the medical institution disappeared and the place went through many other functions, was always a place where people of different condition reminded him, honored him and prayed privately for his intercession in difficult situations.

It should come as no surprise that after his decessing, it occurred on March 7, 1889, not only would it be crowded to participate in its funerals and burial, but soon after a monument was erected in the Cemetery, thanks to a popular subscription and even more so that, on March 7, 1901, the first popular Town Hall – in which Freemasons and agnostics abounded – in one of its first public decisions , give the Plaza to the Hospital the name of Padre Olallo and also to the old street of the Poor that leads to it. A tarja, unveiled that day on the facade of the building and which remains there, prays:


Transit benefiting

From this enclosure he lavished the treasures of his inexhaustible charity, the fellow citizen benemérito whom, interpreting the feelings of the grateful people, consecrates this tombstone, poor homage to the greatness of his self-denial, the first people’s Town Hall.


As St. Teresa of Jesus stated, “At the feasts of the saints, ponder their virtues and ask God to give them to you.” With the beatification of Father Olallo, we are again invited to listen to Christ’s exhortations in the Gospel and to follow them, each from his charisms, radically.

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