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The priest who changed the way we treat the mentally ill

St Benedict Menni founded 17 psychiatric hospitals in Spain

Benedict Menni (1841-1914) gave his life to the outcasts of Spain, in particular to organising more compassionate treatment for the psychologically disturbed through the Hospitallers of St John of God and through the sister organisation which he founded.

He was born into prosperity as Angelo Ercole Menni, the fifth of 15 children of Milanese merchants.
He began work as a clerk in a bank but soon resigned after being asked to falsify records. In 1859, when Piedmontese and French troops confronted the Austrians 12 miles outside Milan at the battle of Magenta, he volunteered to help transport the wounded from Milan railway station to the Aracelli hospital.

This brought him in touch with the Hospitallers who so inspired him that in 1860 he entered their novitiate. Four years later he made his solemn profession of vows, taking the name of Benedict in religion.

Such was the reputation he had gained that immediately after his ordination in 1866 he was commissioned by Pope Pius IX to restore the Hospitallers’ position in Spain.

Although the order had been founded in that country in 1572 it had been banned there in 1836 on account of the prevailing anti-clericism.

By the end of 1867 Benedict had succeeded in opening the first children’s hospital and refuge in Spain, at Barcelona. Next year, though, the deposition of Queen Isabella II set off renewed persecution. Benedict, appointed Superior of the Hospitallers in Spain in 1872, found himself under constant threat.

For a while he moved to Marseille but soon returned to Spain to help victims of the Third Carlist War (1872-76) in the Basque provinces.

Eventually Benedict appeared in Madrid, where, “pale, emaciated, beset by hunger and without a cent”, he managed to acquire funds for a building at Ciempozuelos, 20 miles outside the capital. There he founded a psychiatric hospital, which would revolutionise the treatment of mentally ill patients in Spain.

Banning use of the whip, Benedict insisted on a holistic approach, embracing both the moral and physical improvement of patients. He also recognised the importance of bringing women into his work. 

In 1881 he gave a new habit to nine of his women helpers. Eleven years later Pope Leo XIII recognised the Hospitaller Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Their task was never easy; in 1883 one of the Sisters was killed by a patient. Nevertheless, with their help by 1897 Benedict had founded 17 psychiatric hospitals in Spain. Today his Sisters are working in 24 countries.

For Benedict, there was no reward in this world. His last years were overshadowed by hostility not merely from the Church’s enemies but also within the order. After a stroke he developed senile dementia.
He was canonised in 1985.