John Randal Bradburne, O.F.S., M.C. (14 June 1921 in Skirwith, Cumbria, England, U.K. – 5 September 1979 near Mutoko, Mashonaland South, Rhodesia – now Mashonaland East, Zimbabwe), was a lay member of the Order of St Francis, a poet, warden of the Mutemwa leper colony at Mutoko. Killed by guerrillas, he is a candidate for canonization. But he has not yet received from the Vatican the official title of “Servant of God”, the first step toward canonization.
John Randal Bradburne was born on 14 June 1921 in Skirwith, Cumbria, England. He was baptized there as an Anglican on 31 July 1921, the son of Thomas William and Erica May Bradburne He had two brothers and two sisters. Their father, an Anglican clergyman, was the Rector of Skirwith at that time. John was also a cousin of the playwright Sir Terence Rattigan and a distant relative of Lord Soames.
Bradburne was educated at Gresham's, an independent school in Norfolk, England, from 1934 to 1939. He was planning to continue his studies at a University. But, when World War II began, he went straight to the Army.
Bradburne was assigned to the 9th Gurkha Rifles of the Indian Army in 1940. He soon found himself with them in Malaya to face the invasion of the Imperial Japanese Army. After the fall of Singapore, Bradburne spent a month in the jungle. With another Gurkha officer, he tried to sail a sampan to Sumatra but they were shipwrecked. A second attempt was successful, and Bradburne was rescued by a Royal Navy destroyer and returned to Dehra Dun. For his escape, he was awarded the Military Cross. He then saw active service with Brigadier Wingate’s Chindits in Burma.
Bradburne had a religious experience in Malaya, and the adventurer became the pilgrim. When he returned to England after the war, he stayed with the Benedictines to the Buckfast Abbey, where he became a Roman Catholic in 1947. He wanted to be a Benedictine monk but the Order would not accept him because he had not been in the Church for two years. After a while, he felt a strong urge to travel.
So, for the next sixteen years, Bradburne wandered through England, France, Italy, Greece and the Middle East with only a Gladstone bag as his companion. In England, he stayed with the Carthusians for seven months. In Israel, he joined the small Order of Our Lady of Mount Sion, founded for the conversion of the Jews, and went as a Novice to Louvain, Belgium, for a year, where he met Geza Vermes, who would become a famous scholar. After that, he walked to Rome and lived for a year in the organ loft of the small Church in a mountain village, playing the organ. He then tried to live as a hermit on Dartmoor, then went to the Benedictine Prinknash Abbey, before joining the choir of Westminster Cathedral as a Sacristan. Cardinal Godfrey asked him to be the caretaker of his country house, Hare Street House, in Hertfordshire, England. Along the way, in 1956, on Good Friday, he joined the Secular Franciscan Order but he remained a layman. However, he decided he wanted to be buried in the habit of St. Francis of Assisi.
Bradburne's wanderlust was almost coming to the end in 1962, when he wrote to a Jesuit friend in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He asked, “Is there a cave in Africa where I can pray?” The answer was the invitation to come to Rhodesia and be a missionary helper. After his arrival, Bradburne told a Franciscan priest that he had three wishes: to help the victims of leprosy, to die a martyr, and to be buried in the Franciscan habit. A few years later, the Jesuit missionaries introduced him to the Mutemwa Leprosy Settlement near Mutoko, 143 kilometers (89 miles) northwest of Salisbury (now Harare) . He arrived in 1969, went on to become its warden, and remained until his death.
By July 1979, the Rhodesian Bush War, then in its 15th and last year, was coming near Mutemwa. Bradburne was urged by his friends to leave but he insisted that he should stay with the lepers. On Sunday, 2 September 1979, the guerrillas came for him. Accusing him of being an informer, they kidnapped him and then shot him. He died instantly, on 5 September at the age of 58. He was buried in a Franciscan habit, according to his wishes, at the Chishawasha Mission Cemetery, about 18 kilometers (11 miles) northeast of Salisbury (now Harare).
Feature articles on John Bradburne and Mutemwa appeared in the print versions of England's Sunday Telegraph on 23 April 1989 and on 28 August 1994 and the online version on 14 September 2009. The last two articles were written by the newspaper's editor, Charles Moore, who had visited Mutemwa.
In July 2001, the Franciscan priest Father Paschal Slevin, O.F.M., presented a petition to Patrick Fani Chakaipa, Archbishop 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".
A service is held in Bradburne's memory at Mutemwa every year, drawing as much as 25,000 people each time. In 2009 a Mass commemorating the 30th anniversary of his death was held at Westminster Cathedral in London, England.
A poet, he left behind 6,000 poems.
- (en) Although Bradburne was a S.F.O. when he was alive, members of his order, the Secular Franciscan Order, are now required to use O.F.S. after their names by the 2011 declaration of the order’s General Chapter.
- (en) Rt. Rev. Patrick O’Donoghue, the Bishop of Lancaster, “A Pilgrimage to Skirwith!”, John Bradburne Memorial Society Newsletter, Winter 2004, p. 2
- (en) Ibid.
- (en) Joan Carroll Cruz, Saintly Men of Modern Times, p. 164
- Vermes, Geza (1993). Providential Accidents: An Autobiography. 1998. pp. 78–79. ISBN 0334027225.
- (en) Ibid., p. 166
- (en) Ibid., pp. 167-169
- (en) Charles Moore, “John Bradburne: a martyr who turned love into the divine”, Telegraph.co.uk [London, England, UK], Monday, 14 September 2009
- (en) Spectator (UK), “Letter from Zimbabwe”, ZWNews.com, Friday, 29 June 2001
- (en) “London: John Bradburne: Anniversary Mass and Talk”, Independent Catholic News, 5 September 2009, http://www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=14768
- (en) http://www.johnbradburnepoems.com
- (en) Father John Dove, S. J., Strange Vagabond of God: The Story of John Bradburne (Leominster, England: Gracewing, 2001) ISBN 0-85244-383-8 (Published 1985 and 1990, revised 1997, reprinted 2001)
- (en) John Bradburne and Professor David Crystal, editor. Songs of the Vagabond (Leominster, England: Holy Island Press, 1996) ISBN 0-951306-34-0
- (en) Prof. David Crystal and Hilary Crystal, eds., John Bradburne’s Mutemwa in Poems and Pictures (Leominister, England: Holy Island Press, 2000) ISBN 0-951306-35-9
- (en) John Bradburne Memorial Society, John Bradburne of Mutemwa, 1921-1979 (Leominster, England: The John Bradburne Memorial Society, ca 1995)
- (fr) Didier Rance, John Bradburne, le vagabond de Dieu [John Bradburne, the Vagabond of God] (Paris: Éditions Salvator, 2012) ISBN 2-706708-82-4
- (en) Joan Carroll Cruz, “John Bradburne / 1921 – 1979 / Vagabond of God / England/Africa”, Saintly Men of Modern Times, pp. 163-169 (Huntingdon, Indiana, USA: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2003) ISBN 1-931709-77-7
- (en) Leo Knowles, “Come Sweet Death on Wednesday” : “John Bradburne”, Modern Heroes of the Church (Huntingdon, Indiana, USA: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2003), pp. 15-24 ISBN 1-931709-46-7
- (en) Nanette Mary, “The Long Road to Mutemwa” [a poem about the life and adventures of John Bradburne], The Long Road to Mutemwa: And Other Writings (Bloomington, Indiana, USA: AuthorHouse, 2012), pp. xiii-xiv, 1-21. ISBN 978-1-4772-2661-2. The first five pages of the poem are available online at GoogleBooks
- (en) “On Eagles’ Wings: The Life and Death of John Bradburne”, VHS, running time, producer, place, and date unknown, available from the John Bradburne Memorial Society.
- (en) “Vagabond of God”, 59 minutes, format unknown, Norman Servais, Cape Town, South Africa, 1999; released to coincide with the 20th Anniversary of the death of John Bradburne. For more information, go to .