Sunday, 1 September 2013

Remembering John Bradburne

How many saints climbed trees, imagining themselves as Tarzan grew up with a diet of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the books of Beatrix Potter, played hockey, rugby and cricket, took up archery and falconry, and tamed and trained a falcon until the day it escaped? John Bradburne also worked temporarily with a Twyford firm, packing vegetable and flower seeds, fought in the Himalayas and, surrounded by mountains, played Bach and Beethoven on a record player in the early mornings. His life was nothing if not varied!

John Bradburne’s niece, Celia Brigstocke, looks back. “I remember John from when I was a little girl. My mother was John’s elder sister and he often used to visit us in the school holidays as we lived in a school. John was always good fun to be with as a child.” She recalls, “He loved to go for long bike rides taking along a picnic so we could stop at a place with a view, and soak in the beauty of the countryside, and pick blackberries in winter and admire the flowers that were out in the summer. He was always enthusing about the nature around him.”

The Brothers Grimm and Beatrix Potter left a lasting and enchanting impression on John, whose lively imagination conjured a magical world for his young listeners, as Celia fondly recalled. “In those early days he would tell us stories about the elves and the fairies, the little world we could not see. We believed it all and it made our appreciation of the countryside much more interesting! As an uncle there was no one in the world like him. He taught us so much about the simple things in life. Always joking, he was so exciting to have around; not dull like other adults! We loved him to bits. It was like a breath of fresh air to have him with us.”

“John was especially close to my mother of all his siblings. They were both tomboys in childhood and shared so much together, climbing trees and playing in the stream near their home in Skirwith, Cumbria. John was the one who taught us to climb trees and was very quick to show how best to do it. He was thin and agile.”

“In the summer holidays my mother and my elder sister and I would journey by train to stay with my grandmother, John’s mother who lived in Ottery St Mary in Devon. We took all our pets with us on the train, the cat the dog the guinea pig or hamster. It must have been a sight! My father always went off to go sailing on his boat then. Mist, as we called our grandmother, was a widow then. John lived near to his mother there in a lovely part of Devon. His father had been vicar of Westhill nearby, and they are buried in the little graveyard there.”

His longing for prayer and solitude showed itself early in his life. “John was given an old disused shed to live in by a local farmer a couple of miles out of Ottery. It had running water and was John’s borrowed ‘home’ for a while. He collected me and my sister (who was older than me). John put me on the handlebars and off we went on bikes along a winding lane to his new ‘home’. It was just a shed really, but John was very proud of it, and the farmer and he got along very well. I suppose, thinking back, this must have been the first ‘Hermitage’ he had.”  

Those who knew John Bradburne remember his gift of mimicry. Celia spoke of her uncle with nostalgia and affection. “My last memory of John alive was when he visited us in our home. I was in bed with measles or mumps, and he came in to my room to say hello. He did so at a glance with a beaming face, but as soon as he came in to the room his eye caught the frieze of brightly coloured birds that adorned it, and the conversation began about each bird and he imitated the song of each bird. I must have been about ten years old then, but I remember that moment so clearly. I was spellbound.”

In 1962, the man who called himself “God’s Vagabond” knew that he had found what God had called him to be when he visited Mutemwa, a leprosy settlement some distance from Harare, where he spent the next 17 years, praying and caring for people with leprosy. Celia commented, “The tin hut which was John’s home called Piper’s Vale is still there and the many thousands of pilgrims who visit pay their respects by sitting and praying in there. Many of John’s poems are still stuck on the walls in there and some favourite holy pictures.” 

Murdered on 5th September 1979 by the guerrillas who had captured him, John’s death was surrounded by unexpected events. He died because he had asked his captors to allow him to return to Mutemwa and the lepers who would have nobody to care for them. “John’s killers were never caught, and the family have never had an interest in that. The glorious thing about John’s death is that we do believe he died a martyr’s death. This is one of the things he desired, to give the ultimate price to God in this way. He would never have deserted his leper friends, and he was shot because he refused to leave them. The extraordinary event at his Requiem Mass, when drops of blood fell beneath the coffin were seen during Communion, at the moment when three white lilies were placed on top of the coffin- representing John’s love of the Trinity. It was at this point that the blood fell, witnessed by many. On opening the casket, no sign of any issue of blood was to be found, it was clean and dry. No explanation has been given to this day. The mortician had never seen anything like it because there was no deterioration in John’s flesh. He realised that what had happened was no ordinary thing.”

Until John’s death, Celia herself had never had the opportunity to visit Mutemwa.  “My first visit to Mutemwa was triggered by an event in my own life which brought about my initial conversion. It was brought about by the intercession of my uncle, and it changed my life forever. As a result I knew that John was ‘alive’ (and probably kicking!) Fr John Dove, John Bradburne’s close friend told me that I should visit Mutemwa, the place where he looked after the lepers in Rhodesia as it was then. I had an impulse to go and see the place and say ‘thank you’ to John.”

It was a memorable event. “On arrival I was introduced to each of the residents who each had stories to tell. I knew that it was no ordinary place, and the sense of holiness was omnipresent. I had never experienced this before. Three eagles circled a group of us when we visited John’s death site, as soon as we started praying they came and went after about a minute. Eagles and bees are associated with John when people pray to ask his intercession. I was received as a Catholic by Fr Dove in the little chapel there with all John’s friends, a very moving occasion for me. I climbed the mountain called Chigona where the large cross has been erected by a man whose sight was restored after to praying to John, and dabbled my feet in the little pool where he bathed each day.”

Conscious that John Bradburne died, literally, because he laid down his life for others, steps are under way to promote his official recognition by the Church as a martyr. Many thousands of people have visited his grave in the grounds of the Jesuit church at Chishawasha, also near Harare. “Representation has been made to Franciscan Postulators in Rome for John’s Cause for Beatification via Fr Liam McCarthy OFM, who is designated by the Archbishop of Harare to be the person in charge of the Cause. There is now a surge of impulse by the people in Zimbabwe to drive the process forward. This will be discussed at a John Bradburne Day in Harare on June 15th at the Dominican Convent. The first step is to formally have a Postulator in Rome to take it on. Approaches have been made in this direction, but a final push has to be made now to put matters in place for the initial stage to commence. We believe that Pope Francis will love John’s story and the John Bradburne Memorial Society and the Secular Franciscans in the UK are hoping to find a way of approaching him about this.”

God’s love within you is your native land,
So search none other, never more depart,

For you are homeless, save God keeps your heart.