The question of John Bradburne


How  does the making of a saint take place on the margins,  so far from any Catholic authority or community, a life only transmitted  via hearsay and rumours, what might have been overheard on a road passing through the old blackwater fever territories between msasa or mopani trees and  burned-out huts? I think here too of the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador and the mission church,  overlooked, disparaged,  forgotten, out in the wilderness.

The country that was not yet Zimbabwe, still a colony and  torn apart by a war of liberation. Elsewhere I was living through this war, sometimes called the ‘bush war’ and more accurately the Second Chimurenga.

The white minority government of Ian Smith still kept all main roads open and patrolled by soldiers in armed vehicles, but the guerrillas of the Patriotic Front controlled much of the hinterland by the late ’70s.

By August 1979, there were only two white men left in the area of Mutoko, a trading post about 70 miles from Salisbury (now Harare). One was Fr David Gibbs, a priest at All Souls Mission. The other was John Bradburne, an Englishman who looked after lepers at their settlement in Mutemwa. On the night of 2 September, Bradburne vanished from the tin-roofed rondavel that was his home.

In the early hours of 5 September 1979, Fr Gibbs found John Bradburne’s body beside the main road. He was wearing only his underpants and had been shot.

So many deaths back then, and most of them black civilians. Those  that  got publicity  were white farmers and white security force casualties in this so-called ‘terrorist war’. The Church  of my  childhood was divided — those priests or parishes who supported the white settlers, those who  sided with the  black majority and ‘freedom fighters’ .  Looking back, I recall the deportation of Bishop Donal Lamont and other clerics from  what is now Mutare for their support of  black guerillas.

Those  newspaper photographs of so many naked bodies dead by the roadside. So much death, such fear, a brief exultation at the end of the war and then the tyrannies that came after Independence. How do we wrest meaning from  some insignificant death in a brutal war somewhere in Africa?

John Bradburne was born in 1921 in Cumbria, England, son of the Anglican rector of Skirwith. His cousins included Terence Rattigan, the playwright, and Christopher Soames who would become the last Governor of Rhodesia.

During World War II, Bradburne was assigned to the Gurkha Rifles. After the fall of Singapore, he and a brother officer had to survive for a month in the Malayan jungle before managing to escape. He was awarded the  Military Cross. Later, he served with Orde Wingate’s Chindits in Burma. During the war he began a lifelong friendship with his fellow Gurkha, John Dove, later a Jesuit priest, who has been the key guardian of his memory.

Somewhere in the tropical jungles of Malaysia, Bradburne had a kind of  transformative conversion experience.  In 1947, back in Britain, he converted to Roman Catholicism after staying with the Benedictines at Buckfast Abbey. . He wanted to become a Benedictine monk but the Order would not accept him because he had not been in the Church for two years.

In the ensuing 16 years, he tried to become a monk, twice in England and once in Belgium, but gave it up. He fell in love and came close to marrying. He wandered across Europe and the Middle East with only a battered Gladstone bag. He made a penniless pilgrimage to Jerusalem, wandered round England as a species of minstrel, became caretaker of the Archbishop of Westminster’s country house in Hertfordshire, and while living for a year in southern Italy, made a private vow to the Virgin Mary that he would remain celibate. He was clearly holy, but equally clearly in the eyes of many, hopeless at sticking at anything, an impractical daydreamer. He joined what is now called the Secular Order of St Francis in 1956.


When he was nearly 40 years old, Bradburne wrote to Father Dove — by this time a priest in then-Rhodesia — and asked him: “Do you know of a cave in Africa in which I can pray?’ He came out and joined his old friend.

Even there, he did not find a niche. “I’m a drone,” he would say. He felt superfluous.

[‘Indecisive, a dithering sort of bloke,’ was how one Francisan priest  described him to me. Another said, ‘Oh he was a a lost soul, the poor man, drifting through life with his nice accent and  no idea about life.’ ]

One day in 1969, almost a decade after Bradburne’s arrival in Africa, his friend Heather Benoy, who used to play the guitar to accompany his recorder, suggested they go to see the leper settlement at Mutemwa, near Mutoko north-west of  Harare. They arrived to find a scene of dereliction.

The lepers were dirty and hungry, the thatch of their tiny huts falling in. “I’m staying,” said Bradburne, and  meant it literally — that he would stop there and then, and for good.

Mutemwa‘ in Shona means ‘You are cut off’, a name that originally referred to the high granite-domed mountain nearby. A leprosarium had been established there by the colonial government in 1937.

John Bradburne became the warden of the settlement and gave the lepers the care they had never had before. He improved their hygiene and housing, driving away the rats which used to creep in and gnaw their insensate limbs. He bathed them himself, cut the nails of those who had fingers and toes, fed them, and cared for them in bouts of sickness.

He wrote a poem about each one of them (there were more than 80 patients). With his encouragement, a small round church was built at Mutemwa, where he taught Gregorian plainchant to the lepers. When they lay dying, he read them the Gospel.

Mutema Catholic chapel

After about three years, the Rhodesian Leprosy Association, the body responsible for Mutemwa, fell out with John Bradburne. They seem to have had a narrow view of their duties, and felt that Bradburne was extravagant. He was criticised, for example, for trying to provide one loaf of bread per leper per week. And he infuriated the Association by refusing to put numbers around the necks of the lepers, insisting that they were people with names, not livestock. The Association expelled him from the settlement. Friends of  John Bradburne admitted he was  stubborn, unreasonable at times and could be ‘quite unsaintly’. As difficult in his own way as the remarkable Arthur Shirley Cripps, another Christian and poet who had caused trouble for the colonial government.

But Bradburne would not go away. from his lepers. He lived in a tent on Chigona, the mountain hard by Mutemwa on which he was accustomed to pray. Then a friendlier farmer gave him a tin-roofed hut, with no electricity or water. There he lived for the next six years, and ministered to the lepers as best he could, often by night.

He was more or less a hermit, praying long and regularly, writing religious verse, bathing in a pool on Chigona, living without cash or a salary and wearing the brown habit of a Franciscan. As a lay member of the Third Order of St Francis, he obeyed its Rule, singing the daily office of Our Lady. He rose at dawn for Matins and ended the day with Vespers and Compline. This discipline provides the context for many poems written at the turning-points of the day.

Through this period, the war intensified. Bradburne was uninterested in politics (his naivety, said friends) and only concerned with the welfare of the lepers. Friends tried to persuade him to leave, but he refused.

At midnight on 2 September, 1979, about ten youths came to John Bradburne’s hut. They were “mujibhas“, not full-blooded guerrillas, but the local messengers, the eyes and ears of Robert Mugabe’s soldiers. They were probably acting on a tip-off from a worker at Mutemwa who hated Bradburne because he had reprimanded him for stealing the lepers’ rations, and so denounced him falsely as a Rhodesian spy.

The guerrillas were in an uncomfortable position. They had been inundated with local reports that their prisoner was a good man, and they were angry with the mujibhas for kidnapping him, but they were nervous of taking him back to Mutemwa now that he had seen so much. They interrogated him, some taunted and tortured him. He seemed quite unconcerned, and after about ten minutes he knelt and prayed, which infuriated the guerrilla commander.

The guerrillas set off with John Bradburne and made for the main road. Just before they reached it, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the security commander ordered Bradburne to walk a few places ahead and then stop and face him. He did so, and fell on his knees and prayed for about three minutes, again showing no sign of fear. Then he rose to his feet, and as he did so, the commander shot him dead. (His killer is now a businessman in Zimbabwe.) John Bradburne was 58 years old at the time of his murder.

Bradburne had told a priest that he had three wishes — to live with and serve lepers, to die a martyr, and to be buried in his Franciscan habit. In all the agitation following his death, this last wish was not properly fulfilled.

Fr David Gibbs, who had taken Bradburne’s habit from his hut for safe-keeping turned up with it at the funeral in Salisbury placing it on top of his coffin.

Also on the coffin were three white flowers, placed by a friend of Bradburne’s to symbolise his devotion to the Trinity. In the course of the funeral, three drops of fresh blood fell from the bottom of his coffin to the floor. After the funeral the coffin was opened and the body inspected. It was dry and there was no sign of any issue of blood. John Bradburne was then dressed in his old brown habit, and buried at the Chishawasha  Mission Cemetery.

[And I heard stories over the years about the noise of bees that came from the coffin, as if a swarm of wild African bees were in there, a thrumming and  din that alarmed the funeral-goers.]

The character of John Bradburne’s life and manner of his death naturally gave rise to the idea that he might be a saint, with the story of the three white flowers, the three wishes and the three drops of blood. Iconic symbolism.

People began to attribute miracles and cures to John Bradburne’s intercession.

[The  elderly  Shona woman on the road to Penhalonga who said that she had been cured of  incessant nose bleeds after she  asked  Brother John for help.]

A steady trickle of pilgrims from Zimbabwe and many other countries makes its way to Mutemwa. On  a recent anniversary of Bradburne’s death, over 6 000 people paid tribute to his memory with a candle-lit procession and an all- night vigil. Increasingly, Mutemwa and, in particular, the overlooking rock, Chigona, are becoming an international site of pilgrimage — a holy place where prayers are answered.

Fr John Dove SJ, Bradburne’s closest friend, has written a biography called Strange Vagabond of God, which is available through the John Bradburne Memorial Society, as is a privately published anthology of John Bradburne’s poems, along with prayer cards and other items.

In July 2001, the Franciscan priest Father Paschal Slevin, presented a petition to Archbishop Chakaipa of Harare for an inquiry into Bradburne’s canonization. Father Slevin commented: “I have no doubt that John died a martyr in his determination to serve his friends, the lepers. If his martyrdom is accepted, his cause for sainthood could go quite quickly”

John Bradburne 2



  1. I feel, and having recently spoken to a couple of CR priests who met John, that he would scoff at the notion of beatification, all the attendant politics and skewed motives, somehow so contrary to his self-effacing jester-spirit. I don’t see why his memory cannot be honoured and treasured without this farcical process. An inspirational and flawed man, a victim of a tragic situation. Why is it that the Italian doctor who was killed has had her cause advanced with more speed? Its all about the corrupt system – I don’t think that John Bradburne would have wanted any part of it – he was an outsider.

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