September 18, 2021
RELIGION

Why Briton John Bradburne could become Zimbabwe’s first Catholic saint

John Bradburne cared for people living with leprosy in then-Rhodesia, refusing to leave them as a civil war raged

“You’re not safe here, John. You are going to be killed”. The bearded lay missionary with long, straggly hair stopped playing his flute for a moment and then shrugging off the thought, resumed.

A few days later, on 5 September 1979, John Bradburne would be dead. Abducted from his small hut in Mutemwa, north-east Zimbabwe, tortured and shot in the back – accused of being an informer.

The warning had been delivered by Catholic priest Fidelis Mukonori, his friend and driver, as they wound their way through the dusty roads to Mutemwa’s leper colony.

The war of independence was encroaching on the settlement. And the Rhodesian forces had withdrawn from the area.

“The [liberation war] guerrillas would never have killed him,” Father Mukonori tells the BBC. He believes it was the work of Rhodesian special forces, pretending to be guerrillas fighting the white-minority government.

Since his death, John Bradburne has become a revered figure in Zimbabwe’s Catholic community. 

Thousands travel to Mutemwa on annual pilgrimages to pray, and there is a growing movement within the church in support of his beatification.


The five steps to sainthood

  1. Wait at least five years after an individual’s death (in most cases)
  2. Diocese where person dies investigates their life to show they are a “servant of God”
  3. Rome then considers if the person lived a life of “heroic virtue”
  4. A miracle needs to be attributed to prayers made to the individual after their death
  5. Canonisation
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A wanderer and somewhat eccentric, John Bradburne had arrived in Rhodesia 17 years earlier at the age of 41, looking for a “cave to pray in”. 

He came with three wishes for this life: to care for people with leprosy, to die a martyr and to be buried in the Franciscan habit.

The son of an English vicar, he had converted to Catholicism after serving in the British army in Malay and Burma, where he was injured in combat.

He joined the Mutemwa leper colony in 1969 as a warden, making his home in a pre-fabricated tin hut, with a grass matt for his bed and few possessions. 

John Bradburne, Why Briton John Bradburne could become Zimbabwe’s first Catholic saint
Image captionHe lived in this tin hut and was often close to starvation

Working for the leper colony brought him validation he never received in his middle-class existence in the UK.

“He said to me: ‘From the day I set my eyes on these people, I discovered I am also a leper among my own people’,” Father Mukonori says. 

He remembers Bradburne saying: “Working for and with them I feel appreciated, that I am doing something good and they call me Baba [Father] John.”

‘He had few possessions, only love’

Colleta Mafuta, 78, is one of the few surviving people with leprosy whom he cared for. Her hands were eaten away by the disease as a child and she came to Mutemwa for treatment.

“He arrived with few possessions, only love,” she recalls.

John Bradburne, Why Briton John Bradburne could become Zimbabwe’s first Catholic saint
Image captionColleta Mafuta is one of many people hoping to see John Bradburne made a saint…
John Bradburne, Why Briton John Bradburne could become Zimbabwe’s first Catholic saint
Image captionShe says Bradburne cared for her and other leprosy patients with love

“The colony was filthy and the people were dirty. There was no medication, no clothes and people went hungry. He took care of everyone’s needs – feeding people, and washing and bandaging our sores.”

Every day for a decade, the routine was the same. Up at 03:00 to bathe the leprosy patients, feeding time at 07:00, he would help carry those to a church service and then a five km (three mile) run.

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Bradburne was also a poet, who composed songs of worship and religious verse. In one he describes himself as the “Vagabond of God”.

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