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Was Norfolk ‘vagabond of God’ a saint?

Known as The Vagabond of God, former Norfolk schoolboy John Bradburne is the subject of a new biography and a growing movement to have him canonised as a saint. Keith Morris reports.

The ex-Gresham's pupil, and son of a North Norfolk vicar, found his true mission in life, after a long search, loving and caring for a colony of lepers in civil war-torn Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) – a role which led him to be murdered by guerrillas.

John was the son of Cawston Anglican vicar, Thomas Bradburne, and as a youth spent time there and also at Gresham's School near Holt.

It wasn’t until he was drafted into the British Army in 1940 that religion began to become an influence in John's life. He found faith when death was all around him behind enemy lines with the Chindits, a special operations unit in Burma. He returned to Europe a reluctant hero and started looking for work.

Back home he went through a succession of jobs, including: forester, schoolmaster, stoker on a fishing trawler, grave- digger, street musician, garbage collector, but in time he came to realise that his real vocation lay with God.

In 1947, John joined the Catholic Church, experimenting first with both Benedictine and Carthusian spirituality, before deciding to follow the spiritual path of St Francis of Assisi. He described himself variously as a ‘Buffoon of Christ’, ‘a fool skilled in fiasco’, pilgrim, hermit, mystic, drifter and ‘rolling stone’.

In 1961, thanks to wartime friend and Jesuit, John Dove, he went to Zimbabwe where he started a new round of odd jobs, as handyman in a Franciscan mission, then warden of a Jesuit residence.

In 1969, John went with a friend to visit Mutemwa Leprosy Centre, where hundreds of lepers, far from receiving palliative care, were simply awaiting death in appalling conditions.

He decided, on the spot, to live among them, soon making himself a friend of one and all. He acted as the lepers’ caretaker, nurse, cook and confidante. Mutemwa quickly became a special place of prayer, peace, laughter and joy, yet sadly this awoke jealousy and suspicion, and he was expelled from the Centre for six months during which time the lepers' lives worsened considerably.

When he was finally allowed to return to live near the settlement, Mutemwa had become caught up in the turmoil of a civil war and atrocities perpetrated by both sides in the conflict.

He was strongly advised to leave for his own safety as guerrilla warfare surrounded Mutemwa. John replied: "Would they waste a bullet on a clown?" He stayed on to care as best he could for the lepers as the situation grew desperate.

In September 1979, John, the only white European left caring for the lepers at Mutemwa, was abducted by young guerrillas, put on trial, found innocent and released but shot dead as he walked back home.

His lasting legacy is that Mutemwa is now a place of pilgrimage, attracting tens of thousands of pilgrims to the place where this "holy man' lived and worked. Several unexplainable happenings occurred during and after his funeral, including blood seemingly dripping from under his coffin although he had been dead for a week, and people being healed after calling on his name.

There is a growing movement in support of his cause for sainthood ' he would be Zimbabwe's first ever saint. There is also the rich legacy of his poetry, of which he wrote more than 6,000 pages.

Biographer, Didier Rance, said: "The life of John Bradburne was so extraordinary and at the same time so deeply and humbly human that it may speak to anyone and give reason to believe in man as well as in God."

Celia Brigstocke, from The John Bradburne Memorial Society, said: "John's cause for beatification is currently under investigation at the Vatican in Rome and in 2019 we will have a big celebration to commemorate his life and 40th anniversary of his death."

The UK edition of John Bradburne: The Vagabond of God, by Didier Rance is sold by The John Bradburne Memorial Society, PO Box 32, Leominster, HR6 0YB, priced at £15 inclusive of postage.


John Bradburne at the Mutemwa leper colony with Peter, top, and Mai Jeromia, above.