The People of Gibraltar
1890 - Asilo de Huérfano De Benso - San Juan de Dios

João Cidade Duarte and Juan Mateos - Joé Benso and Mariquita Shakery
Rev Ignacio Ayesterán and Brother Antonio Almazán - Jerome Saccone
Arturo J. Patrón

The Order of San Juan de Dios  - la Orden Hospitalaria de San Juan de Dios - has a long intermittent history in Gibraltar. The Portuguese founder - João Cidade Duarte - was born in 1495 and spent most of his youth as a shepherd.  Later he enlisted as a soldier under the banner of the Emperor Charles V but was thrown out of the army after being accused of embezzlement.  

San Juan de Dios aka João Cidade Duarte  ( 1660s - Alonso Cano )

Saved rather miraculously at the last minute from being hanged, he continued with his military adventures until he suddenly felt an overwhelming desire to return to his roots in Portugal. Unable to do so for financial reasons he found himself in Gibraltar where he decided to travel across the straits to Ceuta. A few years later in 1533, he returned to the Rock where according to a 1955 article written in the ABC:
Iba siempre a trabajar a lo que hallaba. . . y como s contentaba con poco sustento ahorraba del jornal. . .Y con tal ahorro fue con el que comenzó su pintoresca profesión de librero ambulante en la que de forma tan genial efectuaba labor piadosa desacreditando los libros profanos que tenia para conseguir vender los de devoción y regalando las cartillas de catecismo y las estampas de santos al par que exhortaba a los clientes a llevar una vida cristiana.

João Cidade Duarte returning to Gibraltar from Ceuta. He is referred to as San Juan de Dios despite the fact that he had not yet been canonized.   ( 1640 - Juan de Noort )

In 1539 Duarte left Gibraltar for Granada where he eventually founded his Order. 

In 1567 in what was possibly the first hospital worthy of the name ever to be established in Gibraltar by Juan Mateos (see LINK) - he called it Nuestra Señora de las Misericordias. Mateos and his very few assistants continued their good work for many years, to such an extent that the hospital became well known in the Campo area and beyond, to such an extent that in 1591 the Bishop of Cadiz - Don Garcia de Haro - came to Gibraltar specifically to visit Mateos and his medical institution

He found him in such a poor state of health that he immediately arranged for the Order of St John of God to take over the hospital and run it for him. It now became known as the Hospital de San Juan de Dios. The new administration continued their continued their work until 1704 when Anglo-Dutch forces took over Gibraltar (see LINK) and converted the building into a barracks. 

Nearly a couple of centuries later, two wealthy Gibraltarians Joé Benso and his sister-in-law Mariquita Shakery, both of them childless, decided to leave their fortunes to charity. It would be up to whoever might be the executor of their wills to decide what to do with the money.  When Benso died, Mariquita was appointed executor and complying with what had been agreed in principle between her and Benso, decided to use his money to help her set up an orphanage for poor children who were either Gibraltarian or happened to live on the Rock. 

She also managed to obtain the help of the Bishop of Gibraltar, father Canilla y Moreno who wrote to Brother Benito Menni Figni - the man responsible for restoring the Order of San Juan de Dios in Spain. The arrangement was that that the new orphanage - the Asilo de San Juan de Dios - would be set up in South Barracks Road. It would be run by the Rev Ignacio Ayesterán with help from the Brother Antonio Almazán and two others. The Orphanage duly opened in the summer of 1890 with much fanfare and excitement - especially that of Mrs Shakery.

A very few years later disaster struck - Mariquita died intestate and her fortune - which was much larger than that of Benso - was claimed by several of members of her family. Unfortunately this meant that there were not enough funds to sustain the Orphanage properly. The decision was therefore made to transfer lock stock and barrel to Spain where overheads and general costs were sure to be less than in Gibraltar. In 1896 off they went to an imposing pile in La Línea de la Concepción known as either Villa San José or Casa Saccone which belonged to an extremely rich Gibraltar merchant of the same name. 

The tallest building is the Casa Saconne or Villa San José. However, separate buildings dated 1871 were discovered when the main palace was being refurbished.  These older structures were used as stables by the Saconnes. It was and is still known as La Casa Colorada. The Asilo may have used this section of the Villa its home.

It is almost certain that they did not occupy the entire house - which was quite large, nor has it been possible to discover what kind of financial arrangement - if any - had been set up with the owners. What is certain is that the new executor of Benso's will - Arturo J. Patrón, a rich influential local banker and legal expert might have had something to do with getting the best terms possible for the orphanage and that they enjoyed a good 14 years in this local.

In 1899, for example, the Asilo had 25 children (see LINK) and was run by its Prior, Domingo Dalmau and by the brothers Sebastian Montes, Daniel Martino and Felipe Castellar. The chaplain was the Rev. P. Beremundo Mata.

In 1910, however, the institution returned to Gibraltar after having obtained a suitable place in 'la Morada de Danino', better known as Palace Gully and close to Arengo's Palace (see LINK) and the Sacred Heart Church. 

Arengo's Palace - Gibraltar

Sacred Heart Chuch - Gibraltar

The Asilo was described in a biography of the modern founder of the Juan de Dios Order - San Benito Menni - as:
Consta de dos pisos con amplias galerías y habitaciones espaciosas y bien ventiladas, con vistas panorámicas a la ciudad, al puerto e inmensa bahía y tiene adosado al lado  derecho del primer piso, con el que forma un mismo cuerpo de edificio, un salón con treinta y ocho metros y cincuenta y siete centímetros de largo por cuatro y setenta y cuatro de ancho, y sobre dicho salón una azotea de las mismas dimensiones.
In 1932 they were on the move again. Thanks to the efforts of the new executors and other charitable individuals the Asilo purchased a building in Witham's Road known as Plata Villa. 
However, ten years later World War II intervened. In 1940 and according to the Magazine "La Caridad" the place was closed down . . 
. . . por orden de las autoridades británicas y efecto de la actual conflagración, fueron evacuados los niños de este Asilo a Granada donde están recogidos en nuestra casa hasta que vuelva la normalidad a aquella plaza.

A derelict Plata Villa - After the War it became a Christian Brother's school and then St Joseph's Middle School

The War eventually came to an end and normal civilian life returned to Gibraltar - but the Asilo de Huerfanos De Benso never did. The identity of those orphans who were evacuated to Granada is not known - nor whether they ever returned to Gibraltar.