John Bradburne Biography

The Vagabond of God
by Didier Rance

Abridged by Linguist David Crystal author of A Life Made of Words: The Poetry of John Bradburne

Foreword by Jean Vanier

‘The story of John’s life has touched my heart and soul, and brought me closer to God. It has revealed to me a God wonderfully full of surprises, better, more intelligent, more creative than we could imagine. An extraordinary God who cannot be confined in rational concepts 
or in an “ordinary” religious life.’

John Bradburne (1921–1979) lived an extraordinary life. He was a reluctant hero of the Second World War, a pilgrim and a hermit, a poet and a musician, a joker and a mystic, and a theologian. After many years travelling and searching, he found the place that God wanted him to be – living alongside men and women suffering with leprosy in Mtemwa, Zimbabwe, a place he helped transform into a community of peace, joy and love. 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.

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.

Then, during the civil war of 1979, John was kidnapped and murdered. Since his martyrdom, word of his life has spread around the world, and miracles have occurred in association with his name.

John Bradburne: The Vagabond of God is the most comprehensive biography of this remarkable man, based on three years of research through the archives of the John Bradburne Memorial Society (, interviews with people who knew John, and travels in his footsteps. The book was published first in France, where it won the Grand Prix Catholique de Littérature. Author, Didier Rance, says: ‘I heard about John Bradburne in 1983 and he never left me since … This book is of course for Christian people, but not only for them. 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. I spoke of John Bradburne in France on the basis of this book to lot of audiences of young people who were thrilled by his life (and the same with older people).’ Rance adds he ‘confidently bets’ John Bradburne will become one of the most popular saints of the 21st century.

Well-known humanitarian figure Jean Vanier, Templeton Prize winner and founder of the L’Arche communities, is one of the numerous people who discovered and been inspired by John Bradburne’s life, following his death. Indeed, in his foreword for this edition of John Bradburne: The Vagabond of God, Vanier credits Bradburne with bringing him closer to God.


DIDIER RANCE is a writer, historian and lecturer. He is a secular Franciscan, a deacon in the Catholic Church, former National Director for France of Aid to the Church in Need, and Vice-president of the John Henry Newman French Association. The book was translated into English by Malachy O’Higgins, who has taught at the École Normale Supérieure de St Cloud, the Université de Paris X (Nanterre), the Dublin Institute of Technology, and Holy Trinity College in Zimbabwe. It is abridged by linguist David Crystal, author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language and A Life Made of Words: The Poetry.

John Bradburne — The Vagabond of God

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portrait of John Bradburne

Portrait of John Bradburne

John with two Mutemwa residents

John with two Mutemwa residents

John with friends at Mutemwa

John with friends at Mutemwa