|Martin de Porres (1579-1639)|
Christians Who Changed Their World
Martin de Porres was born in Lima, Peru, the illegitimate son of Don Juan de Porres, a Spanish nobleman, and Ana Velázquez, a freed African slave from Panama. His father was disappointed that Martin had inherited his mother’s dark skin and features, and so he delayed acknowledging paternity for eight years. Don Juan was still living with Ana, however, and she bore him a daughter named Juana two years after Martin was born. Ultimately, his father ended up abandoning the family while Martin was still a boy.
Martin thus grew up in poverty and because he was mixed race he suffered much social stigma. He was able to attend school for two years and then at age 12 was apprenticed to a barber-surgeon, who taught him how to cut hair, bleed patients in keeping with current medical practice, and prepare and administer medicines.While still a boy, Martin began to develop an active prayer life, often spending much of the night praying and engaging in practices intended to subdue his bodily desires to devote himself more completely to God.
At age 15, he decided that he wanted to devote his life to the church, but Peru banned descendants of Africans and Indians from joining religious orders. Accordingly, Martin approached the Dominicans of the Convent of the Holy Rosary in Lima and asked to be taken as a servant.
At first, he worked menial jobs and manual labor around the monastery. He was responsible for cleaning the rooms of the Friars, and he was so careful and thorough about this that he was nicknamed “the saint of the broom.” Meanwhile, he continued to develop his prayer life and spiritual practices and was particularly notable for his humility, which enabled him to ignore insults aimed at him for his mixed-race ancestry.
Martin’s diligence and growing spirituality attracted the attention of his superiors in the convent. He was given more and more responsibilities, and his superiors decided to ignore the law and allow him to become a lay brother in the convent. He refused several times because he did not think he was worthy of the honor. Eventually, in 1603, his superiors ordered him to accept the position as a lay brother, and Martin reluctantly agreed.
Once he became a lay brother, many offices within the convent were opened to him. He continued to work in the kitchen, but not surprisingly, given his background, he became the convent’s barber and began working in the infirmary. He was particularly skilled as a healer, and unlike many in his profession he treated everyone who came to him alike, whether rich or poor, Spanish or native, free or slave.
He was remarkably patient and giving in his work in the infirmary. At one point, he took in a beggar covered with ulcers and put him in his own bed to care for him. When one of the brothers in the convent rebuked him for this, he replied, “Compassion, my dear Brother, is preferable to cleanliness.”
At one point an epidemic broke out in Lima. Martin cared for the Holy Rosary’s sick, but also began bringing people from the community into convent for care. Eventually, the head of the Dominicans in Lima forbade him from bringing any more people in out of fear that the epidemic would spread to the brothers, so instead Martin began sending them to his sister’s house in the countryside where he cared for them. One day he came across an Indian in the streets who had been stabbed. He brought the Indian into the convent and left him in his own room until he could arrange to send him to his sister’s house. The convent’s prior was angry about Martin’s violation of the ban on bringing the infirm into the convent, but Martin replied, “Forgive my error, and please instruct me, for I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity.” After this response, the convent gave Martin permission to perform acts of mercy as his conscience dictated.
Martin’s godly character, humility, and work in the infirmary soon led to stories of miracles. Many miraculous cures were attributed to him, sometimes administered simply by giving a patient a glass of water. It soon became rumored that he could tell who would live and who would die, and that if he was very solicitous of you, you did not have long to live; conversely, if he largely ignored you, you would recover.
During the epidemic his is reported to have entered closed rooms of both novices and brothers without opening the doors; he simply appeared suddenly next to the brothers. Other stories tell of him bilocating, i.e. being in two places at the same time. In his prayers, people reported seeing him surrounded by light and on at least one occasion, levitating.
Whatever we make of these reports, there can be no doubt of his compassion and skill as a healer. The stories themselves led to a number of very unusual opportunities for a mixed race lay brother in a convent in this period. Many of the brothers and important members of the Lima community sought him out as a spiritual director and counselor, for example.
His reputation undoubtedly contributed to his effectiveness in other areas of ministry as well. For example, he was the convent’s almoner. In this position, he was responsible for collecting alms to distribute to the poor and to support the convent. He collected enough money regularly that the convent was able to feed nearly 200 poor people per day plus take care of its own needs. He also raised a great deal of money to provide dowries for poor girls and to set up an orphanage for the poor in Lima’s slums.
From his position as almoner, he soon became responsible for overseeing all the provisions of the monastery. At one point, when the convent was in financial difficulties, he urged them to sell him as a slave since he was just a poor mulatto who was the convent’s property.
Martin also cared very deeply about animals. He would not eat meat, and he set up a shelter for stray cats and dogs at his sister’s house. One amusing story often told about him concerned his love of animals and his responsibility to maintain the convent’s clothing. Mice were eating the linen clothes in the wardrobe. Some of the brothers wanted to poison them, but Martin said they were just hungry. He caught one of the mice and told him to tell the other mice that he would feed them every day at the far end of the garden, but they had to stop eating the clothing. He put the mouse down, and that mouse and the others left the house and followed Martin into the garden. He fed them there each day, and there were no further problems with mice in the convent.
Because of his remarkable rapport with animals, Martin is often depicted with a broom and with a dog, cat, and mouse eating out of a common dish at his feet.
Despite taking care of the wardrobe, Martin’s humility and frugality led him to wear his habits until they were falling apart. He did keep one fresh habit in his trunk, however, so it would be ready for his burial.
When Martin died, his funeral was more appropriate for a prominent public official than for a mixed race lay brother. His body was laid out for people to pay their respects to him, and so many people snipped off parts of his habit to keep as relics that the habit had to be replaced three times. Father Caspar de Saldana, the prior of the monastery, conducted the funeral, and his pallbearers included the Viceroy of Peru, the Archbishop of Mexico, the Bishop of Cuzco, and John de Penafiel, a judge of the Royal Court in Lima, all his close friends. He was not buried with the lay brothers but with the priests, because everyone recognized he was worthy to be placed there. That evening, the Archbishop commented, “Yes, this is the way saints should be honored.”
Martin was considered a living saint during his lifetime, and many miraculous healings were attributed to him after his death. Yet the stigma of his mixed race heritage and his African features followed him after his death. The church only officially recognized him as a saint in 1962, 323 years after his death. In contrast, his close friend Rose of Lima, a Dominican sister, was canonized in 1671, 54 years after her death. She, too was mixed race (her father was Spanish, her mother creole), but she looked white. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Martin’s race and appearance played an enormous part in the delay of his canonization.Martin is now the patron saint of barbers (of course) and of social justice. His life is an example of genuine humility and compassion in the face of racial hostility and prejudice, and demonstrates that in the end, it is through practicing these qualities that we can overcome hatred and earn the respect that would otherwise be denied us out of bigotry or prejudice. In this way, we put into practice Paul’s words, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).
It’s hard to know where to begin imitating this unique man’s faith. So why not start where he started: begin to ask God for a heart more completely devoted to Him. How long can you sustain this?