Merciful Brothers of St. Roch

Merciful brothers of St. Roch (Fratres misericordiae sub titulo S. Rochi) was a monastic order that ministered the poor and the sick in infirmary-type špitolės. In Europe, the Roch brothers belonged to a large family of monastic orders that combined monastic life with active help to the impoverished members of society. This mission was consolidated by an additional vow, the vow to minister to the sick (the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are common to all of them). In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, this kind of work was actively carried out by bonifratres, who came to Vilnius in the first half of the 17th century and šaritės, the Religious Sisters of Mercy. The merciful brothers of St. Roch was a monkhood that was not only born in GDL but GDL was the only territory on which they carried out their activities.

Serving God, helping humans

The foundation for the St. Roch Brotherhood was laid by the assessor from Joniškis, Kazimieras Jarolavičius’ son Jonas, who having discovered his vocation, sold out his part of the property – houses, forests, land – inherited after his father’s death, and in 1705 became a Franciscan tertiary. In the same year Jonas was actively involved in the construction of a new infirmary in the vicinity of the Vilnius castle. After several years of hard labour the construction of the infirmary, a monastery and a small church was completed.

A big challenge for the monks was the outbreak of plague that struck the country in 1709.

Their activity during the outbreak made the Brothers of Roch famous. Led by Jonas Jarolavičius, they took care of the crowds of people, who, urged on by the famine and deprivation, were flocking to Vilnius; they also buried the victims of plague taken in cartfuls out of the city. The Brothers themselves did not escape the grim end – one after anoter they left this world … Others continued their work, under the guidance of priest Karolis Liutkevičius. The disaster retreating and the wails hushed, the activities of the Brothers were resumed in 1713 by the Vilnius bishop Konstanty Kazimierz Brzostowski. Within 40 years the Brothers of Roch settled in Kęstaičiai (1738), in Varniai (1743), in Kaunas (1750) and in Minsk (1752). They worked diligently throughout the day for the benefit of the poor. Some of them collected donations, others tended the sick, at times helped by a doctor. In infirmaries, the Brothers were assisted by female nurses (the Brothers were not allowed to tend women), cooks, tailors, shoemakers and other workers.

The door of the Roch brothers’ špitolė would be open to all, irrespective of ethnicity, gender or religion.

The mercy of monks and the overfilled hospitals

The špitolė under the care of monks tended to everyone who didn’t have money to pay for the doctor’s work or for the medicines. Because of a great wish to help the suffering and due to the poor level of medicine, the Roch brothers’ infirmaries were permanently overfilled. They were supposed to take care of several dozens of patients (only Religious Sisters of Mercy could treat a bigger number of people at a time). However, the clergy supervising the activities of the Brothers of Roch complained that there were too many patients. In 1786 the Vilnius Roch Brothers were instructed to admit to the infirmary not more than 40 people as “poverty and throngs of patients in them can only harm people’s health. Despite the best efforts of doctors and the hard work of the monks, the harm done to patients’ health by the overfilled and poorly ventilated facilities would be irremediable.” Notwithstanding continual warnings and reprimands there would be several dozen more or sometimes twice as many patients in Vilnius Roch’s špitolė (hospital).

Grappling with disease and indifference to the suffering of others

Even though working in špitolės were members of the same religious order, who followed the same rules and carried out the same mission, they still had to adapt to local conditions and perform different functions. In the larger cities (Vilnius, Kaunas, Minsk) špitolė functioned as hospitals. People suffering from the “French” (venereal) disease also received treatment there; the doors of the majority of infirmaries would be closed to them. Such patients, sometimes making up half of the patient body, were considered to be dangerous and efforts were made to separate them. In Vilnius they were moved to special premises (separate for males and females). In Kaunas špitolė: “Those who have contracted venereal diseases live in the same premises, yet separately from other patients; they wash separately, they have their own beds to sleep in, their own cutlery and dishes”. There was a large variety of illnesses and diseases treated: arthritis, asthma, tuberculosis, cancer (the way it was perceived in the 18th century), common colds and injuries.

In smaller places (Kęstaičiai, Varniai) the Brothers of Roch were not so much more involved in treating diseases as in nursing people with disabilities – the blind, the deaf – mutes, epileptics or those who had lost sanity. These people would rarely leave špitolė. Most often, after long years in it they would meet the sunset of their lives there. In bigger towns, too, the Brothers would not close the doors to those who needed care more than treatment. The monks also tended to expectant mothers, foundlings and orphans.

In Vilnius špitolė, life replaced death; alongside the painful wails, baby crow could be heard.

The Kaunas Brothers of Roch also took care of homeless children and the demented. There is information about a one Laurynas Korkozas, who spent eight years in špitolė “the man lost his mind and cannot take care of himself – he even has to be fed”.

Senior representatives of the clergy judged the activities of the Brothers of Roch favourably. In their reports they wrote about špitolės as “the best and most important”; The Lord of the clergy and his environment, as well as other people made donations to the Brothers of Roch and the deprived they were taking care of.

Literature: Jakulis M., „Rokitai: santvarka ir veikla XVIII–XIX a. I pusėje“, LKMA metraštis, t. 33, 2010, p. 59–95.

Martynas Jakulis