“Vagabond of God”: The beatification cause of John Bradburne

Bradburne served the lepers of Rhodesia before being murdered during the country’s civil war in 1979.

An undated photo of John Bradburne visiting residents of the Mutemwa leper colony. (© John Bradburne Memorial Society)

If all goes well, an English missionary who was killed during Zimbabwe’s civil war will be soon be named a saint.

Martrydom in Rhodesia

Perhaps it is best to begin John Bradburne’s  story with his death. In early fall of 1979, Rhodesia was embroiled in a 15-year civil war that was nearing its end. The war pitted the white minority ruling government against the military wings of two African nationalist parties, including the Zimbabwe African National Union led by Robert Mugabe.

Although they had not been told to do so, some of Mugabe’s soldiers captured Bradburne, an Englishman and World War II veteran who had served as caretaker of the Mutemwa leper colony since 1969. The rebels took him to their commander, who upbraided them for their action. They replied their prisoner should be killed because he was white and therefore an oppressor.

The commander retorted that their prisoner was well-known and loved in the surrounding district for how faithfully he had served not just the lepers but the area’s poor. Additionally, killing a white civilian would certainly bring down the wrath of the national security services, the last thing they needed at this stage of the war.

The commander and his men argued for hours. Finally, the commander demanded the prisoner’s release, and sent him away—ostensibly to his home—under guard.

It was the night of September 5, and as the soldiers escorted Bradburne back toward Mutemwa, their leader decided to disobey his commander. They pushed Bradburne to the side of the dirt road into the brush by a river. There, evidently knowing what was coming, the prisoner knelt for a while. Then, as he started to rise, the leader gave the signal to one of his men. That man emptied his AK-47’s magazine into Bradburne’s back.

The men later reported that at that moment they heard beautiful singing. Fearing it was nearby villagers, they fled, leaving the dead man’s body, although their intention was to bury it where no one would find it.

They came back later in the evening. At first there was silence. Then, as they neared the body, the singing began again, louder and seemingly closer than before. Again the rebels fled.

Later they returned a final time. This time three lights surrounded Bradburne’s corpse and ascended into the night sky—one red, another white, the last blue—and as the three rose, they fused into one.

Now thoroughly frightened, the panic-stricken soldiers from the scene, leaving locals to find the victim’s body after sunrise.

No cookie-cutter saint

Who was this man whose death prompted such remarkable phenomena?

John Bradburne was born in 1922, to an Anglican vicar and his wife at Skirwith, Cumbria, England. After the start of World War II, he received a commission in the British army, first with the Gurkhas. Later, he was assigned to and finished out the war with the famous Chindits in Burma. It was also while in the army that John began to develop a deeper relationship with Christ through Our Lady, and met the future Fr. John Dove, SJ, who was to play a decisive role in John’s life.

After returning home, John drew ever closer to the Catholic Church, which he joined in 1947. Over the next few years, he served at various churches, houses, and monasteries, both in his homeland and in Jerusalem and Italy, and he flirted with joining several religious orders, including the Carthusians, Benedictines, and the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion, which at the time was dedicated to the conversion of the Jews, a project near and dear to John’s heart.

None of these moves ever satiated his vagabond soul’s craving for silence and the space to live alone in contemplation with Christ. In 1962, he wrote his friend John Dove, now a Jesuit priest stationed in Rhodesia, asking if there was “a cave in Africa where I can pray.”

As it happened, Dove’s newly established Jesuit mission needed volunteers. He invited John to give it a go, and his friend left England later that year.

Over the next several years, John tried but rarely succeeded in balancing the solitude he craved with being a servant on behalf of Jesus.

The end of vagabond days

In 1969, John visited the leper colony at Mutemwa (which means “You are cut off”), a 90-minute drive from the capital of Harare. John had found his home. He moved to the colony and began his decade-long service to its destitute, often starving, and always misunderstood residents.

He drove away the rats that feasted on the lepers’ decaying flesh. In the spirit of St. Francis, he sang to his patients. Like Mother Teresa in Kolkata, he bathed the lepers, fed them when they lost their limbs, and attended to and held them as they died.

He led the building of their chapel, and for each Mass, he loaded some of the most handicapped lepers into a hand-drawn cart that resembled a small pickup truck flatbed. Anticipating St. Paul VI’s 1974 letter Jubilate Deo, John taught the lepers a basic repertoire of Gregorian chant so that in the ugliness of their lives, they would have something beautiful at Mass. To this day, the remaining lepers at Mutemwa use this music at Mass.

In his free time, he wrote countless number of poems, more than 170,000 lines. What amazes the reader is knowing that his excellent, sometimes very complex works are nearly all first drafts, with hardly any corrections.

The end of the road

By 1979, the Rhodesian Bush War had come to the region surrounding Mutemwa. Catholic missionaries and aid workers, including four Jesuits, three Dominican sisters, and an Italian female doctor travelling in a clearly marked ambulance, were ambushed and killed.

Friends urged John to flee, but he refused to leave his “family.” This is how the rebels found him in his tiny hut that September.

After capturing John and marching him to their encampment, the militants mocked him and tried persuading him to sleep with a girl who was a camp follower. They also tried to make him eat human waste. The next day they questioned him. Like Our Lord before Pilate, his words were few. Mostly he knelt in prayer.

At John’s funeral service in the Salisbury (Harare) cathedral, three drops of blood appeared below his coffin. This so concerned the undertaker, he had the body checked before clerical witnesses after the service. There was no sign of blood inside or outside the coffin, and Bradburne’s wounds were dry. This incident has been verified by numerous sources.

Every year up to 25,000 people attend a memorial service in John Bradburne’s honor at Mutemwa. Several miraculous healings have been attributed to his intercession.

His niece Celia Brigstocke formed the John Bradburne Memorial Society in order to promote her uncle’s beatification cause and to encourage the Vatican to back the effort. Archbishop Robert Ndlovu of Harare has enlisted the Society to act as petitioner for the cause, and the Society has hired a postulator.

To learn more, read Father Dove’s biography of John, titled Strange Vagabond of God, and Didier Rance’s book John Bradburne: Vagabond of God.


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About Brian O'Neel 19 Articles
Brian O’Neel writes from Pennsylvania.

9 Comments

  1. Thank you for this beautiful and encouraging article. It strengthens my faith to read something which shows that holiness is what the Church is all about.

  2. When the going gets tough the Martyrs stay. John Bradburne knowingly stayed with his life on the line for the world’s Least. As a layman missionary I recouped from malaria at St Ann Hospital Salisbury [Harare] during the height of that war. I could ‘feel’ the hatred between the races. Mugabe a Catholic was swept by an irrational hatred that ruined that country’s economy. John Bradburne’s blood we pray will help heal that broken nation.

  3. Oh my! Just when you think that heroic sanctity is gone from the world you encounter a story like this one of John Bradburne or of Mother Teresa or the Algerian martyrs. The love of Christ is still strong in the world. Thanks be to God.

  4. I have followed John Bradburne for several years. Commando Officer, Gurkha, poet, mystic, healer and a very inspirational man. He had three great gifts: His Faith in following God and his self discipline and bravery. I very much look forward to seeing JB beatified. I hope the Gurkha and Special Commandos adopt JB as their Patron.

  5. Praise God from Whom all blessings flow!!! John Bradburne has been my Heavenly friend in the Great Cloud of Witnesses for many years! Mysteriously ‘introduced’ to me. I am OFS, as he was, and May Holy God be forever Praised!!!!

  6. I met John Bradburne during my military service and was privileged to share a few meals with him. A true man of God and extremely humble and a servant to the lepers.

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