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John Bradburne

30 November, 1999

Pilgrim, mystic, carer of lepers, civil war victim: Charles Moore tells story of the extraordinary life in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) of Catholic convert, John Bradburne.

Some twenty years ago, the war in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, was at its height. The white Government still kept all main roads open, but the guerrillas of the Patriotic Front controlled much of the hinterland. Whites in outlying areas were told that the authorities could no longer protect them and were invited to move to safer places.

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 round tin hut that was his home.

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

There were many deaths in that war: more than 2,000 whites and several times that number of blacks. Some have remained obscure and many have been forgotten. But the death of John Bradburne is fervently commemorated, for many believe him to be a saint.

Early life
John Bradburne was born in 1921 into the High Anglican English upper-middle class. His cousins included Terence Rattigan, the playwright, and Christopher Soames, the last Governor of Rhodesia.

In World War II, he was an officer in the Gurkhas. After the fall of Singapore, he and one brother officer had to live for a month in the Malayan jungle before managing to escape. Later, he served in Orde Wingate’s Chindits. During the war he began a lifelong friendship with his fellow Gurkha John Dove, later a Jesuit priest, who is the main guardian of his memory.

To the question, “So what do you do?”, which the world always asks, John Bradburne could provide no satisfactory answer. He had a few brief jobs – forestry, schoolmastering – but it was clear that his mind was elsewhere. He was searching for God.

Conversion to Catholicism
In 1947, he converted to Roman Catholicism. In the ensuing 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 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.

When he was nearly 40, Bradburne wrote to Father Dove – by this time a priest in Rhodesia – and asked him if he knew of “a cave in Africa which I can pray in?” 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.

Leper settlement
One day in 1969, almost a decade after Bradburne’s arrival in Africa, his friend Heather Benoy, who used to play the guitar to his long recorder, suggested they go to see the leper settlement at Mutemwa, about whose poor condition she had heard. They arrived to find a scene of dereliction.

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

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 their sickness.

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

Living as a hermit
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.

But he would not go away. He lived in a tent on Chigona, the mountain hard by Mutemwa on which he was accustomed to pray. Then a friendly farmer gave him a tin 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 completely without money, and earning the habit of a Third Order Franciscan.

Through this period, the war got worse. Bradburne was utterly uninterested in politics, and was only concerned with the welfare of the lepers. Friends tried to persuade him to leave, but he refused.

Kidnapped and killed
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. 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. His killer is now a businessman in Zimbabwe.

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

Fr David Gibbs, who had taken Bradburne’s habit from his hut for safe-keeping forgot to dress his body in it, and he 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 at last dressed in his habit, and buried as he wished.

Saintly reputation
The character of John Bradburne’s life and the manner of his death naturally gave rise to the idea that he might be a saint, with the story of the three flowers, the three wishes and the three drops of blood adding a possible supernatural element.

People began to attribute miracles and cures to John Bradburne’s intercession. Now there is a program underway to catalogue these happenings in a structured way as evidence of his influence for the ‘cause’ file necessary for the beatification process.

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


This article was written by Charles Moore and first appeared in The Word, a publication of the Society of the Divine Word. For more on John Bradburne, see www.icon.co.za/~host/john/.