By Shingai Nyoka
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.
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.
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 Fidelis 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.
“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, his routine was the same. He was up at 03:00 to bathe the leprosy patients; they were fed at 07:00. Then he would help carry them to a church service, before taking a five km (three mile) run.
Bradburne was also a poet, who composed songs of worship and religious verse. In one he describes himself as the “Vagabond of God”
With his trademark red headband, he was a striking figure who clashed with other leaders in the settlement.
His family attributes it to his efforts to prevent the exploitation of leprosy patients and his demand that patients be treated with dignity.
Becoming a saint
Since his death, several people have claimed miraculous healings after praying to him.
This satisfies one condition for sainthood in the Catholic Church. It is also said that at his funeral, held in Harare, a speck of unexplained blood appeared below his coffin.
However, it took years for the Vatican to agree to his family’s request to consider him for sainthood.
His niece Kate Macpherson took over the push for beatification from her late mother, Celia Brigstocke. Mrs Brigstocke had formed the John Bradburne Memorial Trust in 1995, as a charity and as a vehicle to push for his sainthood.
“She came here many times and saw the miracles, and saw the people and the love,” Mrs Macpherson says.
“It was actually people who were getting in contact with her – religious people, lay people – just saying there is something more to this. Every year momentum gathered, and testimonies were coming in hundreds of thousands.
“It’s not everyone who can say: ‘My great-uncle could be a saint’,” she laughs, “this is a unique and surreal thing.”