Image Copyright: John Bradburne Memorial Society.
He was born in Skirwith, Cumbria on the 14th June 1921 into a high Church of England family; his dad was an Anglican vicar.
When war broke out in 1939, he applied to join the Indian Army, and on arrival he was posted to the 2/9th Gurkhas. To his comrades he was something of a military hero: after the Japanese invasion of Malaya he had to escape capture by hiding in the jungle and then making a daring escape (which included one shipwreck!).
Even as a soldier he loved silence and prayer, music and poetry. He played the harmonium and had a beautiful singing voice. All nature spoke to him of God, for whom he searched.
After the war he returned to England and soon moved close to Buckfast Abbey, Devon. Here he worked as a builder’s mate during the day and in the evening he visited the Abbey for instruction in the Catholic faith and prayer.
In 1947 he was received into the Catholic Church at the Abbey. From that year on he started writing poetry. He wrote about 6,000 poems, making him one of the most prolific poets in the English language (pg 42 “…I also believe that anyone who has a talent, however small or great, once he is a Catholic should use it for the sake of the kingdom…”).
For the next 15 years he moved from place to place – initially searching for his religious vocation, but later seeking to live out the ‘strange vagabond’ life to which he felt called. He tried to become a monk, not only with the Benedictine community at Buckfast, but also with the Carthusians and the Trappists in Jerusalem and Belgium. While he would initially feel he had found his ‘home’, he never stayed for very long.
He travelled to the Holy Land motivated by a great love for the Jewish people (pg 57 “…my enthusiasm for the Jews and desire to bring them their King has culminated in what I firmly is a vocation…”).
John entrusted his life to the Lord fully, to the point that for him it was enough to flip a coin in the air to establish where God was leading him (pg 45 “..he did what he so often did in a spiritual crisis: he withdrew, leaving it to the Lord to heal wounded feelings. This was often prefaced by the spin of a coin: heads I stay, tails I go…”).
He always had a great love for St Francis and the Franciscans; and in 1956 he joined the Secular Franciscan Order as a layman.
In 1962 he wrote to his close friend Fr John Dove SJ – a Jesuit missionary in Zimbabwe – asking if there were not some cave in Africa where he could live and pray. Fr John arranged for him to come to Zimbabwe as a lay mission helper. In this capacity he lived and helped at various mission stations over the coming years.
Soon after arriving in Africa, he expressed three wishes:
First, to serve and live with lepers;
The second, to die a martyr;
The third, to be buried in the Franciscan habit.
Over the next 17 years, each of these would, in a mysterious way, be granted.
In 1969 he visited the Mutemwa Leprosy Settlement near Mutoko, Zimbabwe – and immediately knew that this was the place which he could not leave. For a period he worked as the warden of the settlement. He loved the lepers and treated them with care and dignity; he would bathe them, dress their wounds, sing to them: John was much loved in return. He also fought for their rights: to be called by their name and not a number and for their rations not to be cut. Later, he was sacked and sent away from the Settlement but he continued to care for the lepers from his hermitage close by, as best he could.
Despite living in isolation, he developed strong friendships. People also sought his company and were concerned for him. He would only eat once a day and would give to the lepers all the food and clothes he received as gifts.
Like St Francis, he loved animals and wrote poems about them. There are a few episodes in his life that mysteriously involve eagles and bees. Once John prayed to God to send a swarm of bees to keep away noisy visitors; in the space of a few days a whole colony of wild bees had settled in his hut under his table. He sat at the table, wearing shorts and writing poetry – and was never bitten once! African bees are feared for being very big and ferocious and people stayed away from his cell.
In 1979 the Rhodesian civil war came to Mutemwa. John refused to leave the colony. Local inhabitants to wanted to get rid of the lepers and started spreading rumours that John was a spy for the pro-Government security forces. On 2nd Sept he was captured by the guerrillas and brought to their outpost. Their commander admired him and set him free. However on the journey back to Mutemwa he was shot in the back and left by the side of the road.
On three occasions, local villagers attempted to move his body so that it would not be found by the security forces. But when they first approached, they heard a choir singing; later they saw a white bird circling around him; finally they saw 3 rays of light ascending from his body. They fled and did not return. His body was soon discovered by a Jesuit friend.
At his funeral 3 drops of blood dripped out of his coffin. The blood was fresh, unlike that of a dead man. But no signs of blood were found on his body upon inspection by the funeral directors. It was however noted that John wasn’t wearing the Franciscan habit, as he had wished. A habit was found, his body was robed and the coffin finally buried.
Because of the events in John’s life and the nature of his death, the idea that John might be a saint was soon born and miracles and cures began to be attributed to his intercession.
In 2001 a petition was presented to the Archbishop of Harare for an enquiry towards Bradburne’s canonization.
The summit of Chigona mount is now a holy place of pilgrimage. There is a cross overlooking Mutemwa bearing John’s name and the words “Servant of God 1921-1979”, which was erected by a man cured of blindness through John’s intercession. A service is held in his memory every year at Mutemwa, attended by thousands of people.
The John Bradburne Memorial Society is a charity founded in 1995 to spread information about John’s life and to support the Mutemwa Leprosy and Care Centre in Zimbabwe; as well as providing care to leprosy patients, the centre also cares physically handicapped and destitute people.