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Origins of the Divine Providence Hospital and its facilities over the years

The last decade of the 18th century was characterized, in Portugal, for a series of bad crop years, bread shortage and rising prices, which had direct consequences on the impoverishment of large sectors of the population. The increase in the number of sick vagabonds in Vila Real, abandoned in "the streets and other public places”, together with the concerns of the local government regarding this situation, was crucial for the establishment of the Misericórdia’s Hospital.

Moreover, in the latter part of the 18th century, there was a higher concern by both the society and the State towards public health and hygiene, in an attempt to combat the epidemics that occurred cyclically in Portugal, but also to control and mitigate pauperism, as well as begging and vagrancy. Hospital assistance began to assume a more operative feature, mobilizing public powers and alerting Misericórdias for this aim.

Moreover, under the Marquis of Pombal’s restrictive laws regarding pious obligations, a sign of secularization that was spreading in Portuguese society, the legacies left to the Misericórdias began to consider especially the sick, the poor, the elderly, and the young and abandoned, that is, new forms of assistance that that favoured the body over the soul. This explains why, in the second half of the 18th century, many Misericórdias extended or improved their medical facilities or created new hospitals.

The Misericórdia of Vila Real could not, therefore, ignore this new setting, which favoured the creation of a hospital. Its Board understood that the Institution would only have the popular support from the moment it was able to ensure hospital care for the population. And so, in the context of the restructuring carried out in late 18th century, the Misericórdia of Vila Real created the Divine Providence Hospital, a name chosen since the administration of the House in 1795-1796, according to the Hospital Chronicle, written in 1828, had nothing more than "the good wishes and confidence in the Divine Providence".

A final reason for the founding of the Hospital was the fact that the Misericórdia, after a "fierce quarrel", obtained the payment of a debt owed by the bishop of Braganza, António Luís Veiga Cabral, thanks to the determination of the provedor Joaquim José da Silva Barbosa e Sousa (1794-1796), which has helped to strengthen the intention of the Board to build a hospital, "as they saw the poor dying under the arches and streets of this town".

In short, in the late 18th century the Misericórdia of Vila Real was facing the problem of its own extinction or a continuity that could not be founded on the pillars from the past. Indeed, the functions carried out by the Institution in the past, which granted it the reputation and sustainability needed to live in the 16th century, were gradually absorbed by other orders and brotherhoods in the meantime established in Vila Real.

Given this reality, limited in the number of brothers, financially exhausted, lacking in capital and donations, the Misericórdia of Vila Real could not continue to restrict its mission to the celebration of masses in perpetuity, the religious cult, the ceremonies of the liturgical calendar and the service burials, all of them being performed more efficiently by other brotherhoods, including those existing in the parish churches of St. Denis and St. Peter.

It had to find an innovative field of assistance, which did not suffer competition from the other brotherhoods, adequate to the changing times and with a social impact, allowing an affective reconciliation of the Misericórdia with the population of Vila Real. This was the merit of those who, in the last decade of the 18th century, were responsible for the fate of the Misericórdia, particularly Francisco da Silveira Pinto da Fonseca, daring to establish a hospital from scratch, an action immediately supported by the inhabitants of the old town.

The Divine Providence Hospital began to function on March 13, 1796, as we have mentioned above, in a street near its headquarters, but later that year, it was transferred to a set of houses acquired by the Misericórdia in the same street, for 500 000 réis.

The commitment of the Misericórdia of Vila Real in the maintenance of the Hospital was, since then, very strong, so that the Board at its meeting on May 20, 1797, decided to present a series of proposals to all brothers in order to solve the "lack of charity and love towards God" that some brothers revealed in relation to the Hospital, especially concerning the collection of alms on Sundays.

Considering that hospitals were "one of the main objects of the Misericórdias of this Kingdom, recommended in their bylaws”, the Board proposed the voting of a new regulation regarding the obligations of collecting alms, to be added to its own Bylaws, also serving as the basis on the request to be sent to the king, in order for him to "take the Hospital under his royal protection".

As years went by, the Misericórdia, given the increasing number of patients and the new demands of medical science, considered necessary to build a new hospital space. Thanks to the commitment of successive Boards, to the public collections throughout the province of Trás-os-Montes, and to the support obtained by its benefactors, the new Divine Providence Hospital, which included a chapel and a private cemetery, began to function on October 19, 1823.

Evidently, over years, these facilities were progressively improved. In the second half of the 19th century, new spaces were built, namely, a “decent” medical wing for the Brothers of the Misericórdia, separate medical wings for men and women, bathrooms for each infirmary and private rooms for the pensioners and patients with financial resources. Besides, the Hospital staff also increased, and the post of chief steward was eliminated, as the clinical practice became directly responsible of dealing with the Board, a fact that demonstrates the principle that a medic should be in charge for the patients of a hospital.

The Divine Providence Hospital remained in these facilities until 1915, when it received an expropriation threat by the city council presided by Augusto Rua, who was simultaneously the provedor of the Misericórdia. Hence, the Hospital was transferred to the building where the former College of Our Lady of the Rosary once functioned, and the Hospital’s previous building began to accommodate the Municipal Council of Vila Real.

The new facilities had to be adapted to the functioning of the Hospital, and throughout the 20th century they were improved, following the expansions of the rendered services. The capacity of the Hospital was gradually increased, up to a total of 150 beds, in the mid-20th century, plus 50 beds in the maternity ward.

The Divine Providence Hospital remained in this building until 1991, although no longer depending on the Misericórdia since 1975, due to its nationalization following the revolution of 25 April 1974, assuming the designation of Vila Real District Hospital.