Not being able to remember things is one of the consequences of old age, in some cases beneficial, in others frustrating. After many years I cannot now remember how I first made contact with Fr John Dove, a Jesuit missionary in Zimbabwe, or whether he first got in touch with me.
At least I can remember why we had a link. When teaching at Stonyhurst (1958-9), Fr Dove had been a friend of my younger brother Rupert, then a pupil. Now, along with his fellow missionaries, he was struggling to cope with the poverty and chaos of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
For many years after that first contact, I would send Fr Dove a donation at Christmas time and he would reply always using a card of a smiling bearded figure with long hair and a bright red headband.
That was my first introduction to John Bradburne, now widely known as a possible candidate for canonisation and perhaps the first English saint since the Victorian eminence Cardinal Newman, who will be canonised in October.
It was Fr Dove who later sent me the book he had written about John Bradburne, Strange Vagabond of God, telling the story of an Anglican parson’s son, like Fr Dove an Army officer in the Gurkhas, who served heroically with Orde Wingate’s Chindits in Burma and who, after many wanderings, had written to Fr Dove to ask if he knew of a cave in Africa where he could be a hermit.
Neither a doctor nor a priest, he became a kind of glorified odd-job man at Mutemwa leprosy settlement. Then a run-down sink of a place, it was transformed by John Bradburne’s efforts and especially by the way he befriended the lepers, much as Father Damien had done in Hawaii.
John Bradburne’s life ended tragically in September 1979 during the Zimbabwean war of independence when he was abducted and shot by Mujhiba bandits. During his Requiem Mass it was noted that three drops of blood had leaked from his coffin. The coffin was opened but there was no sign of any bleeding and, besides, witnesses testified that the blood was fresh and bright. As the story spread Mutemwa became a place of pilgrimage and there were further reports of seemingly miraculous events.
“Recently,” Fr Dove wrote to me in January 1994, “a little African girl was kidnapped. She was locked into a room alone day after day. Her parents eventually paid the ransom. She was freed and her parents questioned her on her loneliness, locked up all day. She said that a very kind man in a brown habit and red headband visited her every day – talking, praying, singing. Well, this is the second case reported re John B comforting children.”
A few years later I finally met Fr Dove, who, on a rare visit to England, was saying Mass in a church in Henley, not far from where I live. He knew that I was a friend of the director Ken Loach and wanted me to give him his book in the hope that he might make a film out of it. (I passed the book on to Ken despite my feeling that as a devout atheist he was unlikely to respond – in this I was correct.)
After Mass at Henley, Fr Dove showed me John Bradburne’s red headband which he carried everywhere with him and which he wanted me to touch. This is the only time, I think, when I have touched a relic – which Fr Dove was convinced it was. “I have had some remarkable cures when applying it to sick people,” he told me.
I was not to be surprised, he said, if after touching the headband I was visited by bees, as they had special links with John Bradburne who had lived, totally unharmed, with a swarm of bees in his hermit’s hut in Zimbabwe, believing they would discourage unwelcome visitors.
I was quite relieved that in my own case I was spared any bee infestation. Fr Dove died in Zimbabwe in 2014 at the age of 92.
Richard Ingrams is a former editor of Private Eye and The Oldie.
To contact the John Bradburne Memorial Society, email [email protected] For more information, visit johnbradburne.com