SÃO PAULO – The newest addition to a fleet of hospital boats on the Amazon River is to be christened the Saint John XXIII, and will soon be serving patients in some of the most remote parts of Brazil.

The boat will join the Saint John Paul II and Pope Francis in providing health care to mostly indigenous populations in Brazil’s Amazon region, whose riverside communities often lack basic infrastructure and healthcare facilities.

On July 1, Franciscan-inspired “Associação e Fraternidade São Francisco de Assis na Providência de Deus”, which manages 74 clinics in Brazil, bought the boat from a local shipyard, and says it will be ready to serve the Amazon communities in about six months.

The Pope Francis was launched by the association in 2019 and the Saint John Paul II followed in 2020.  Both boats have been assisting riverside communities in Pará State. The Saint John XXIII will navigate the Negro and Solimões rivers, two of the Amazon’s tributaries.

“After more than one year of experience and 140,000 people assisted, we knew it was about time to launch a third hospital boat in the Amazon,” the institute’s founder, Father Francisco Belotti, told Crux.

The funds for the boat came from a court settlement, and the ship’s transformation into a hospital, including the equipment, is being financed by the food processing company Marfrig.

According to Belotti, the institute had only just started a search for a shipyard that could build a new boat when it found a recently finished one that was perfect for the project.

“We told the shipyard’s owner that we wanted to use it as a hospital. He answered that confronted with such an important project, he couldn’t give put the ship anywhere else and sold it to us for a good price,” the priest said.

The vessel is a typical multi-story ship designed to transport up to 850 passengers on the Amazonian rivers. After being refitted, the 157-feet-long Saint John XXIII will be able to accommodate 50 healthcare professionals and 10 crew members on its four floors. It will be able to operate for 10 days without needing to be resupplied.

The new hospital boat will be used to assist riverside people – fishing communities, indigenous groups, and quilombolas (descendants of African slaves who fled captivity during the slavery era and formed settlements in remote locations – providing medical visits, tests, and even performing surgeries. The operational costs will be funded by Brazil’s government healthcare system. The physicians will be volunteers.

“We’ll begin assisting people who have been waiting for tests or surgeries for many months. Afterwards, we’ll also receive COVID-19 vaccines to administer,” Belotti said.

Bishop Bernardo Johannes Bahlmann of Óbidos in Pará State has taken part in the initiative from the start and witnessed the importance of the hospital boats’ work since 2019.

“The entire healthcare system in the Amazon region is very fragile. People have to travel to distant cities when they’re sick, but many don’t even try to do so, because it’s expensive, difficult, and frequently they don’t get to see a doctor at the end of the journey,” he told Crux.

The boats have been offering a high-quality healthcare service to distant communities, Bahlmann said.

“Given that they visit each location with a certain regularity, it’s been possible even to work on prevention. That’s unquestionably the most adequate system for our region,” he added.

The hospital boats’ work has been critical in fighting the pandemic’s second wave in the first months of 2021. They spent several weeks reaching villages where people were in gave condition and saved dozens of lives by stabilizing patients on board and taking them to ICU beds in nearby urban centers.

“In the city of Faro, they once got to a village where 10 people were dying with no oxygen. They managed to save everybody,” Bahlmann said. At the beginning of February, the entire crew was infected with COVID-19 and had to take a break to recover, but soon the work resumed.

Saint John XXIII will be able to help villages scattered over a large area that goes from the Pará State to the Brazilian Border with Peru and Colombia.

“On the side of Pará, the boats can reach Marajó island in the Atlantic. So, the ships will cover a vast Amazonian territory,” the bishop explained.

Belotti told Crux the project was inspired by a visit by Pope Francis to one of his institute’s hospitals in Rio de Janeiro in 2013, when the pope visited the country for World Youth Day.

“He asked me if we were in the Amazon. With an affectionate slap in my face, he smiled and told me: ‘You should go there.’ That’s when we first conceived the idea of a hospital boat,” he said.

Now, he expects the new boat to be fully operational by the end of 2021.

“It’s an immense satisfaction for us. We know how important it will be for the Amazonian communities,” the priest said.