Born in Portugal in 1495, John was separated from his parents at the age of 8. He found himself an orphan on the streets of town near Toledo, Spain. He was eventually taken in, and given work as shepherd. Even at his young age he impressed his master with his hard work and piety. When John grew up into a man, the farmer offered him is daughter in marriage. But John did not want to get married, so one day he enlisted with group of soldiers who were passing by on their way to fight the Turks.
John spent most of the next twenty years as a soldier, but also went back to shepherding for a time, then traveled to Africa. After being advised by his confessor that being in Africa was not good for his spiritual growth, he headed back to Spain. He received a vision from God that he should go to Granada, which he promptly did. There he sold religious books for a short time after the printing press was invented.
On day, after he heard the preaching of St. John of Avila, he was so impressed, that he gave away all his worldly goods and did public penance for his past life. He had not been especially attentive to his religious duties during his days as a soldier. He was so vehement in his penances that people thought he had gone mad, and he was put in a mental hospital. John of Avila came to see him, and convinced him that he should spend his time helping the poor, instead of punishing himself. John gained peace of heart from this, and soon left the hospital.
He rented a modest house. He then went about the city looking for the poorest, and most infirm people he could find. He brought them back to his house to care for them, sometimes even carrying them on his own shoulders. At first he was alone in his work, caring for the poor and sick by day, and begging for the supplies he needed at night. Eventually he gained the help of charitable priests and physicians, and others who followed his lead.
After thirteen years of mortification, prayer, and devotion to his patients, he died on March 8, 1550. He succumbed to an illness he contracted after trying to rescue a young man from drowning.
St. John of God’s followers established a religious institute called the Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God. The order quickly spread and they founded many hospitals and other institutions to help the poor and sick. This order is still around today, all over the world, including right here in South Jersey where they run St. John of God school for the mentally disabled.
Among other things, he is the patron saint of hospitals and sick people.