British-born John Bradburne Could Become Zimbabwe’s First Saint. Who is He?

An undated photo of John Bradburne (L) with a leper.

A respected figure among the Catholic community in the landlocked southern Africa country since his death 40 years ago, British-born John Bradburne could become Zimbabwe’s first saint. According to reports, Bradburne was shot in the back after having been abducted from his hut in Mutemwa in the north-east of Zimbabwe. Who was he?   

Born in 1921 to Anglican parents in Cumbria, England, Bradburne converted into Roman Catholicism in 1947 while living with the Carthusians. A desire to travel the world saw him shuttle between England, Middle East and Italy. 

Tired of travelling and moved by a desire to find a deeper meaning in life, Bradburne joined the Secular Third Order Franciscan in 1956.

He later made contact with Fr. John Dove, a Jesuit friend living in Zimbabwe enquiring whether there was a “cave in Africa” where he could pray. An affirmative response from the priest saw Bradburne travel to the southern Africa country, arriving in 1962. 

In Zimbabwe, he revealed to a Franciscan priest that his desire in life was “to serve leprosy patients, to die a martyr, and to be buried in the Franciscan habit.”


Seven years after his arrival in the country (1969), Bradburne’s desire to care for the leprosy-afflicted was fulfilled when he was appointed as the lead caretaker at a Mutemwa Leprosy Settlement, a center that cared for leprosy patients. 

His compassionate care to the patients put him at loggerheads with the center’s management.

Bradburne refused to tag numbers on his patients as required or reduce their food portions, much to the chagrin of his seniors. He was eventually sacked, a move that saw him live in a deserted single-roomed tin hut in the settlement compound.

His house had no sanitation, but he was glad that he was within the vicinity of the lepers, whom he continued helping in whichever way he could.

During Zimbabwe’s civil war (1964-1979), Bradburne protected the lepers from exploitation, something that raised suspicion, especially given that he was white. Locals became hostile towards him but he refused any attempts by Christians to take him to safety. 

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His desire to die a martyr was fulfilled on September 5, 1979 when he was shot dead at the age of 58.  He was buried in the Franciscan habit as he had desired. During his burial, three unexplained drops of blood were found below his coffin, reports indicated. 

On July 1, 2019, the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints approved Bradburne’s sainthood cause, thus paving the way for further investigations. On September 5, Archbishop Robert Ndlovu of Harare celebrated a special mass at Mutemwa where Bradburne served, to mark 40 years since his death and to officially launch his sainthood cause.

For his compassion towards the afflicted, Bradburne has been referred to as “Damien of the 20th century” in reference to St. Damian of Molokai who cared for lepers in Hawaii.

“He did a good thing, and that is what it is about. The love the lepers continue to have for him, because of his sacrifices, is truly astonishing.” Kate McPherson of the John Bradburne Memorial Trust told media.

In an interview with BBC, Fr Fidelis Mukonori who worked closely with the Bradburne recalled his (Bradburne) account of interacting with lepers, “From the day I set my eyes on these people, I discovered I am also a leper among my own people.”


"Working for and with them I feel appreciated, that I am doing something good and they call me Baba [Father] John," Fr. Mukonori recalled about Bradburne.

“He arrived with few possessions, only love," Colleta Mafuta, 78, a leprosy survivor who Bradburne cared for told BBC.

"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," she added.

In the 17 years he served in Zimbabwe (1962-1979), Bradburne seems to have fulfilled his life’s desire, that is, “to serve leprosy patients, to die a martyr, and to be buried in the Franciscan habit.”