On an unknown day, the month uncertain, in 1542, Juan de Yepes was born in a small town called Fontiveros. It lay on rocky and barren land in the central plateau of Old Castile midway between Madrid and Salamanca. With a population of about 5,000, the town included some small weaving shops. Juan’s father, Gonzalo de Yepes, who belonged to a wealthy family of silk merchants in Toledo, had stopped in Fontiveros on a business journey to Medina del Campo, and there met Catalina Alvarez, a weaver of poor and humble background. Despite the difference in their status, the two fell in love and married in 1529. Shocked and disturbed by what they considered shameful – a marriage to a girl of low position – the merchant family disinherited Gonzalo. Deprived of financial security, he had to adapt to the drudgery of the poor, which in his case meant the lowly trade of weaving. Under these trying circumstances, both Gonzalo and Catalina had to find strength in their mutual friendship and intimacy. The couple had three sons: Francisco, Luis, and the youngest, Juan (later to be known as St. John of the Cross). But John was little more than two years old when his father died, worn out from the terrible suffering of a long illness. Reduced to penury, the young widow – afflicted but courageous – set out with hope on a tiring journey to visit the wealthy members of her husband’s family, to beg assistance in her dire need. Rejected by them, she had to manage as best she could on her own in Fontiveros. During this time John’s brother Luis died, perhaps as a result of insufficient nourishment. Catalina then felt constrained to try elsewhere, abandoning her little home and moving to Arévalo, where things were hardly an improvement, and finally to Medina del Campo, the bustling market center of Castile, where she resumed her work of weaving.
Here John entered a school for poor children where he received an elementary education, principally of Christian doctrine, and had the opportunity to become an apprentice in some trade or profession. The school resembled an orphanange where the children received food, clothing, and lodging. At this time, the priest who was the director of the school chose John to serve as an acolyte at La Magdalena, a nearby monastery of Augustinian nuns. While on duty, the young boy assisted in the sacristy for four hours in the morning, and in the afternoons whenever the superior, the chaplain, or the sacristan needed him. As for the apprenticeships – in carpentry, tailoring, sculpturing, and painting – John showed no enthusiasm. Rather, his gentleness and patience led to the discovery of his gift for compassion toward the sick. Don Alonso Alvarez, administrator of the hospital in Medina for poor people with the plague or other contagious diseases, took an interest in John and enlisted his services as nurse and alms-collector. Don Alonso also provided John with the opportunity for further study. At age 17, the bright young lad enrolled at the Jesuit school, where lectures in grammar, rhetoric, Latin, and Greek were the rule. The future poet came in contact with Latin and Spanish classics, a contact that was anything but superficial, since the Jesuits insisted on high standards and an abundance of exercises, reading, and composition. Becoming acquainted with classical imagery, the gifted pupil learned about literary technique and opened himself to the world around him. These years of hospital work and study, tasks that called for responsibility and diligence, complemented John’s early experiences of poverty.
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