'If such a wreckage should come to canonisation'
He was a reluctant hero of the Second World War, a pilgrim and a hermit, a poet and a musician, a joker, a mystic, and a theologian. Now, 100 years after his birth, John Bradburne is on the path to possible sainthood.
The son of an Anglican priest, John Bradburne was baptised in the Church of England. He was educated at Gresham’s school, Norfolk, where he was active in the Officers’ Training Corps.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the 9th Gurkha Rifles and faced the Imperial Japanese Army in Malaya. He survived a month living in the jungle and two shipwrecks before seeing active service in Burma.
After the war, and because of an experience he’d had in Malaya, John was received into the Catholic Church at Buckfast Abbey where he had been staying with the Benedictine community.
But John had wanderlust and was soon travelling through Europe and the Middle East.
John in officers' uniform
By the end of 1962, he had been wandering for 16 years when he wrote to a Jesuit friend in Zimbabwe, “Is there a cave in Africa where I can pray?” And so John came to Mutemwa, Zimbabwe, living alongside men and women suffering with leprosy.
Soon after his arrival, in 1962, he confided to a Franciscan priest that he had three wishes: to serve leprosy patients, to die a martyr, and to be buried in the habit of St Francis.
The single-minded loving care he gave the residents eventually brought him into conflict with the management committee. He refused to put number tags around the patients' necks and reduce their already small diet, so he was sacked.
He then lived in a prefab tin hut, lacking water and sanitation, just outside the leprosy compound. From there he continued to help the leprosy patients as much as he could.
As a lay member of the Third Order of St Francis, he obeyed its rule, singing the daily office of Our Lady. He lived its hours, rising at dawn for Matins and ending the day with Vespers and Compline.
This discipline provides the context for many poems written at the turning-points of the day.
Then, during the civil war of 1979, John was kidnapped. He was murdered on 5 September, 1979 and his body dumped at the side of the road.
John on his daily round among his patients.
Now, more than 40 years after his death, John Bradburne is perhaps more alive than ever before.
Since his martyrdom, word of John’s life has spread around the world, and miracles have occurred in association with his name.
Devoted followers travel in their thousands in pilgrimages around the 5 September each year, to spend time at Mutemwa and climb Mount Chigona where John lived with the leprosy patients.
As the pilgrimages continued, a call was slowly heard for the Church to recognise John in a more official way.
In death as in life, he wanted recognition not for his own sake, but for the sake of others.
The campaign for John’s beatification is well underway and, on 1 July 2019, the Vatican issued a formal decree to begin a process that could lead to his recognition as a saint.
In June 2001, Franciscan priest, Fr Paschal Slevin, wrote to the Archbishop of Harare: "I have no doubt that John died a martyr in his determination to serve his friends, the lepers.”
Even now, the John Bradburne Memorial Society is helping those friends through the Metemwa Care Centre.
“Pray for my sanctification, because it would encourage so many souls if such a wreckage might come to canonisation”.
• For more information about John Bradburne’s life, visit the John Bradburne Memorial Society.
• More about John’s poems can be found at John Bradburne Poems.