The centenary of John Bradburne’s birth an occasion to reflect on an extraordinary life, says his great-niece.
June 14, 2021 marks the 100th birthday of my great uncle, John Bradburne: soldier, wanderer, convert, lover of the poor and suffering, and — quite possibly — a saint.
My grandmother, Mary Campbell, was John’s eldest sister, and we always heard many stories about John and his incredible life, from the Malayan jungle war, to busking on streets in London, to finally ending up at Mutemwa working with people with leprosy and where he was brutally murdered.
This is no ordinary family relation that you reminisce about, you’ll see, but a remarkable individual, whose life’s story is one of exploration of the world, and of a spiritual journey.
Most of John’s life appears to have been chaotic and haphazard, but one may see that he was being formed through all his searching and wandering,to complete his final task in Africa.
John was born at Skirwith in Cumbria on June 14, 1921, and was the son of an Anglican vicar. He served with the Gurkhas and Chindits in the Second World War and after a conversion experience in Malaya, he became a Catholic in 1947.
After many years wandering England, Italy and the Middle East, he finally found his calling as a lay Franciscan missionary in Zimbabwe and he devoted the latter part of his life to helping forgotten leprosy patients at Mutemwa Leprosy Settlement.
He refused to leave the leprosy settlement during the Zimbabwean Civil War. He was abducted, shot and killed on September 5, 1979.
Since John’s death, the settlement has become a major pilgrimage centre, with thousands gathering for Mass each year on the anniversary of his death.
I am secretary of The John Bradburne Memorial Society, which helps raise funds to support the Mutemwa Leprosy Care Centre in Zimbabwe where John worked. His centenary offers an important opportunity to reflect on a genuinely extraordinary man, who lived a truly remarkable life.
Saints provide us with models to follow.
What aspects of John Bradburne’s life might we seek to emulate? His achievement in caring for the poor is the obvious one. His achievement as an early eco-warrior is lesser known about, but resonates strongly today, with poems about preserving the environment, condemning plastics. Also notable is his advocacy of the importance of reflection and solitude. In a world where we are faced with distracting devices, telephones, television, radio, computers we are sure he would be writing a lot more on these subjects.
Among those, I would like to consider three a little more fully.
The first is that John was not perfect, but put his trust wholly in God, and gave himself to service. With all the failings of his humanity, he managed to put his needs aside and love and care for people less fortunate. In the end, he laid down his life for them.
Having been to Mutemwa many times and seen the conditions in which John lived — sleeping on the floor of a tin hut and eating hardly any food — it amazes me that anyone could have chosen such a life. But when you meet the patients, their faces light up when you mention John. Not only the love they hold for him still, but also for God, is palpable. It is such a special place.
Secondly, John offers us a figure who isn’t a priest — he was a Franciscan Tertiary — a ‘normal’ person being recognised with the potential to become a saint. This can give the rest of us hope of becoming better people if we trust in God’s plan for us. In John’s own words “Pray on for my sanctification too, because it would encourage so many souls, if such a wreckage might come to canonisation.”
His cause — with which he became a “Servant of God” — opened officially in 2019. The postulator of his cause, Enrico Solinas, described the development as something like dream, adding: “God wanted this,” and noting, “God doesn’t play around with His saints.”
Thirdly, there is John’s accomplishment as a poet, which really came to full fruition when he was living at Mutemwa Leprosy Settlement 1969-79 and flowed out of him like a running tap.
An international scholarly gathering explored his work in Perugia, Italy, in 2017. John is now, at last in 2021, starting to be recognised more broadly, not only for the sheer volume of poetry that he wrote — nearly 6000 poems — but his work is now being studied and he is being compared to the likes of Chesterton, Hopkins and Herbert.
I feel honoured and proud to be lucky to say I am related to John Bradburne and really hope that his example of selflessness will inspire others to learn about his story and help us continue the work at Mutemwa Leprosy Care Centre that John started.
Kate Macpherson is Secretary of the John Bradburne Memorial Society, about which you can learn more atwww.johnbradburne.com.