Page 5, 27th January 1995

27th January 1995
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Page 5, 27th January 1995 — English martyr for the lepers' cause
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English martyr for the lepers' cause

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, the war in Rhode. sia 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 (modern Harare). One was Fr David Gibbs, a Catholic 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 Gibb found John Bradburne's body beside the main road. He 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 will be fervently commemorated this week. For many people believe him to be a saint.

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. His father was a country parson, and he spent much of his childhood in Norfolk, where he attended Gresham's School, Holt.

In the war 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.

Photographs of John Bradburne in his youth show a good looking man with what used to be described as "an open countenance". His manner and his beautiful voice were, and remained, those of an educated Englishman.

People who met him would have quickly discovered that he was humorous, musical ana eccentric, h would have dawned on them more slowly that he was profoundly different from most of humanity.

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, sc.hoolmastering but it was clear that his mind was elsewhere. He was searching for God. 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 catne 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 woud 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 really settle. Although he worked happily enough on various mission stations, and loved the people, fauna and flora of Africa, he did not find a niche. "I'm a drone," he would say. He felt superfluous.

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, their sores suppurating, 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.

Heather Benoy pleaded with him, eventually in tears, until the sun began to set. At last he agreed to go back to Salisbury to collect his few belongings, but on the journey he said, "Damn you, Benoy. You know I've got to stay." He went straight back to Mutemwa and remained there for the rest of his life.

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 to toes, fed them, and cared for them in 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, and Bradburne organised the music for the Mass, playing Bach on a harmonium and teaching Gregorian plainchant to the lepers. When they lay dying, he read them the Gospel.

After about three years, the Rhodesia 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 ilradburne was extravagant.

He was criticised for trying to provide one loaf of bread per leper per week. And he infuriated the association by refusing to put numbers round 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 wearing the habit of a Third Order Franciscan. He scarcely ate: "I've always wanted to fly, and I reckon that if I'm very thin I have more chance of doing so" was his characteristic explanation.

Throughout this period the war got worse. At midnight on September 2, 1979, about 10 youths came to John Bradburne's hut. They were "mujibhas", not full-blooded guerrillas, hut 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 Rhodesan 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, hut 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. When he was offered food he passed it on to others.

About 50 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 paces 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.

John Bradburne is supposed to have 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 his habit from his hut for safe-keeping, forgot to dress his body in it, and turned up with it at the funeral in Salisbury, placing it on top of his coffin.

A cult quickly sprang up. People began to attribute miracles and cures to John Bradburne's intercession. These range from the sublime to the bathetic.

I have spoken to a woman whose terminal cancer suddenly vanished after her communication with Bradburne in prayer, a man who says Bradburne warned him in a dream about the circumstances in which his son would die, and a girl who says that she got a job in a building society after praying to him. John Bradburne prayer cards are distributed across Zimbabwe.

Many accept this, but a larger number of John Bradburne's friends are uneasy. To them, John Bradburne was a brave and good man and a dear friend, and it feels false to insist on larger claims at this stage. It is too early, they feel, to enter into the formal processes of beatificarion and sanctification with their requirements of proved miracles. They respect Fr Dove but think he goes too far.

Fr Gibbs told me that the thing has been forced too fast, producing something which "John would never have wanted". The local hierarchy in Zimbabwe seems to feel the same.

A "cause file" material required for a beatification was submitted in 1986, but the Archbishop decreed that it came too early and that more evidence was needed. There, for the nresent. the matter rests. If Bradburne is declared a saint, one suspects that it will be done by generations yet unborn.

This article is an edited version of a piece that appeared in The Sunday Telegraph in August 1994.




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