The Church and Mediation: Fray Olalla

1-foto-fray-olalloIn 1833, when Havana was ravaged by cholera and there was a shortage of doctors, a boy of 13, immersed in the care of the sick, discovered his true vocation. When asked by one San Juan de Dios friars who observed him with curiosity whether he would like to serve God by caring for the sick, he answered, “Yes, Father, it is my greatest dream.” Almost immediately he took his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and became part of the Brothers of St. John of God, a hospital order which had representatives in Cuba from 1603. This child who become a monk, and who had been placed by his parents a month after his birth in the Real Casa Cuna of St. Joseph the Patriarch, was Brother Olallo José Valdés.

In 1835, when the cholera epidemic was raging in Port-au-Prince, where dozens of patients died, Olallo was sent to reinforce the brothers who worked the San Juan de Dios Hospital — supported by the order since 1728 — where he remained for 54 years, sweeping, washing sheets and bandages, bathing the elderly, healing and feeding the mourners. In this noisy place, accompanied by his readings he became the Head Nurse, using the best techniques to cure ailments, practice surgery and act as a pharmacist.

His strength of character, his dedication, his commitment to the suffering and above all his faith enabled him to deal with the variety of complex situations.

In 1842 Cuba had implemented the decrees of secularization, by which the religious orders were suppressed and their property seized by the government. That is why the Port-au-Prince Hospital became public charity. At that time, although the hospital’s brothers were forced to become state employees and submit to demands beyond their ordinary work, Brother Olallo, ignoring the order, continued his work, preventing the poor patients from suffering the negative consequences of the measure. In 1868, at the outbreak of the Great War, the military authorities occupied the Hospital, turning it into a military garrison and ordering a halt to the care of sick civilians. Olallo not only opposed this measure, but acted as a mediator, to ensure that the only patients discharged were those who could continue their treatment outside the hospital premises, thanks to which, the rest could remain in the hospital.

But it was in 1873 when his name was permanently inscribed in our history. On 11 May of that year Major Ignacio Agramonte was killed in combat on the field of Jimaguayú and his body was taken to Port-au-Prince. The next day, his lifeless body, carried on horseback, was put on display in the middle of the Plaza as a warning and a trophy of war, with orders that no one could touch it. Learning of this, Olallo ordered a stretcher prepared and went to the scene where he told the military authorities that the only higher orders that he followed were those of the Lord. He then loaded the body, took it into the hall of the Hospital and with his handkerchief, he wiped the face covered in mud and blood. The body was then transferred to the infirmary, where it was washed and shrouded, thus preventing the military from being able to further pursue the remains of the Major.

In addition to participating directly in several epidemics, as occurred with cholera, smallpox and yellow fever in 1871, he cared for cholera patients directly and never caught the disease. When Brother Juan Manuel Torres, the only member of the Order left alive, contracted leprosy in 1866, took over Olallo took over this grooming and feeding and cared for the priest until his death ten years later. The final proof of his care for the most seriously ill occurred in 1888. In the presence of witness and before a notary, he stated that all his possessions, including an inherited house and the money that was owed to him by the public administration, would be left to the Hospital de San Juan de Dios in Port-au-Prince, where he served for more than half century.

At 69 years of age, March 7, 1889, ill, but while still attending dozens of patients every day, he died at the Hospital where he exercised his charitable work. He lived for the poor, died poor, and his body was borne by the poor and among them was buried. On his tomb inscription reads: This monument would be in heaven, if it were formed by the hearts of the poor, grateful to Father Olallo who cared for them for 53 years in the Hospital de San Juan de Dios in Port-au-Prince.

In March 1989, the Catholic Church in Camagüey processed a claim for sainthood. In December 2006, Pope Benedict XVI signed the decrees that recognized him as Venerable. In November 2008, the Mass of Beatification was celebrated in the city of Camagüey, where they declared canonically that Brother Jose Valdes Olallo Beato was beatified, a valuable example of the participation of figures of the Church in the political and social issues of Cuba throughout history.