John Randal Bradburne was born at Skirwith, Cumbria in 1921, the son of an Anglican clergyman. After secondary school in Norfolk he joined the army in 1939, and served in Malaya and Burma, before being invalided home. Something in Malaya – a conversion experience, it is said – turned him from adventurer into pilgrim.
He became a Roman Catholic in 1947 when staying at Buckfast Abbey. After some months with the Carthusians, he felt the urge to travel, and for 16 years wandered between England, Italy and the Middle East, living out of a Gladstone bag. Then he wrote to his friend Father John Dove in Zimbabwe asking “Is there a cave in Africa where I can pray?” Soon after his arrival, in 1962, he confided to a Franciscan priest that he had three wishes: to serve leprosy patients, to die a martyr, and to be buried in the habit of St Francis.
From 1964 he was caretaker of a new centre near Harare. Then in 1969 he was appointed warden at Mutemwa Leprosy Settlement, in Zimbabwe.
The single-minded loving care he gave the residents eventually brought him into conflict with the management committee. He refused to put number tags around the patients necks and reduce their already small diet, so he was sacked. He then lived in a prefab tin hut, lacking water and sanitation, just outside the leprosy compound. From there he continued to help the lepers as much as he could.
As a lay member of the Third Order of St Francis, he obeyed its rule, singing the daily office of Our Lady. He lived its hours, rising at dawn for Matins and ending the day with Vespers and Compline. This discipline provides the context for many poems written at the turning-points of the day.
During the Zimbabwean civil war, his efforts to prevent exploitation of the leprosy patients brought local hostility and suspicion. He refused to leave the place for safety and was abducted and on Wednesday 5 September 1979, he was shot.
At his Requiem Mass, eye-witnesses saw a small pool of blood which had formed beneath the coffin during the service. This was quickly covered up by one of the priests. Afterwards, the coffin was reopened, but no sign of blood was found inside it. It was however noticed that John had not been clothed in his Franciscan habit, which, as a Secular Third Order Franciscan, he had wanted. His third wish was then fulfilled and he was clothed in it. The mystery of the blood has never been able to be explained other than by being a miraculous event.
Since his death many other unusual events have been reported in relation to his name. His lasting legacy is that Mutemwa is now a place of pilgrimage, and there is a growing movement in support of his cause for sainthood.