John Bradburne and the lepers

Catholic Medical Quarterly

The Journal of the Catholic Medical Association (UK)

Building knowledge. Building faith. Protecting the vulnerable.

Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 63(3) August 2013

Travels in Zimbabwe:
John Bradburne and the lepers

Dr Peter Doherty,
Former GP and editor of the CMQ

Following his recent visit to Zimbabwe, Dr Doherty writes about a remarkable “man of God”. Dr Doherty is a former Editor of the CMQ and also helps to run a charitable trust which supports work in Zimbabwe.

Bradburne photoThere were two main purposes for our visit to Zimbabwe. One to assess the condition of schooling in the Fatima Mission, situated midway between Bulawayo and Harare.  Our Trust already contributes to the facilities in some of these schools. Also to meet again with Fr. Jeya, an Indian Franciscan Priest who has been in charge of this enormous Mission of 900 square kilometres for the past eight years.  He was born a Tamil Hindu, converted to Christianity and ultimately was ordained a Franciscan Capuchin Priest.

The other purpose was to visit the Leper Colony for which John Bradburne dedicated his life.  It is situated about 40 kms from Harare and is known as Mutemwa, which in Shona means “You Are Cut Off”. It was here that John Bradburne, now regarded as a “Saint in the Making” devoted the last ten years of his life helping and nursing the lepers. Born in 1921 the son of a Parson who ministered to the Anglican Community in the Cumbrian village of Skirith near Penrith, his memory is now being widely hailed throughout the Christian world. 

Neither nurse nor doctor, he lived with the downtrodden and those rejected by society. His life was a remarkable spiritual odyssey. He applied to join the Indian Army after leaving school and was eventually posted to the 2nd/9th Ghurka Regiment serving in Malaya and Burma. Following the Japanese victory in Malaya he and a tea planter worked their way through the jungle to the coast, living on roots and the help of friendly villagers. They managed to reach Sumatra with a few “Jocks” from a highland regiment. After convalescence in India he was posted to Burma, and the Chindits. There, on a parade reviewed by the Commander Major-General Orde Wingate he was congratulated on being awarded an MC for his heroism; but he never actually received it. After a year spent with the Chindits behind the enemy lines he was invalided back to India with Malaria. Even in the heat of battle his eccentricities revealed themselves in bird watching or singing psalms.

Upon demobilisation his search for God continued in earnest and his path was bedevilled with snags and obstacles about which we can have no conception. His lifelong friendship with Fr. John Dove SJ who he had originally met as a fellow Ghurka officer, and who became his biographer reveals the details of his attempts at Monastic Life. He became a perennial pilgrim never at home in the world. Restless wanderings led him through Europe to the Holy Land to a succession of religious communities and ultimately to Africa. His great hero St. Francis of Assisi in his desire to embrace poverty made him realise completely that he must cast off all worldly trappings of comfort. Eventually Fr. Dove, then on a Jesuit mission in Africa, arranged for him to work in the mission as a lay helper. An odd job man could be a boon but John was more suited to working in gardens and farms where food was grown for the community and the poor. It was his great compassion for the sick and aged that made him a celebrity. But to escape the curiosity that it brought him he moved around living in isolated huts, tents and for a spell in a hen house surrounded by clucking feathered fowl.

It was completely by chance that he discovered Mutemwa. He had gone there with a friend from the mission and decided there and then to remain. When he saw the lepers he realized God had finally found him his true vocation. The state of the colony was appalling. Nothing but a dumping ground for unwanted humanity. John treated every leper as an individual and a human being, washing them, feeding them and dressing their terrible sores. He got them singing to the accompaniment of his recorder and harmonium, never before had they had such care, such love, such fun.

John’s subtle blend of gentle persuasion and charisma served him well; soon a doctor and a medically trained nurse came to help him. A chapel was constructed and John gave daily communion to the lepers. But the colony was managed by a committee and all went well for three years. Eventually, his approach angered some of the committee members. They wanted the food rations reduced and metal numbers to be put around the necks of the lepers. It was their belief that the food the lepers were receiving was better than that of the local villagers. John refused to change the conditions and eventually he was dismissed by one of the Committee members. Friends erected a tent halfway up the mountain and John was able to visit the lepers at night time and they managed a pathway up to his new home during the day. Eventually the situation was remedied by the appointment of a new warden and John was able to resume his mission.

picture of crossThen came the War. It took some time before Mutoko became part of the battle ground. It was a fight between the security forces and the guerrillas. The villagers were helping the guerrillas and the security forces retaliated by burning their villages and granaries. Village boys known as Mujibhas acted as the guerrillas eyes and ears and sometimes carried supplies of food and arms. In such an environment it was alleged that John was a spy for the security forces. It was alleged he had a transmitter with which he sent messages. One night a group entered the colony and marched him several miles to their local commander. But he, however, admired the work John was doing and ordered him to be taken back to the colony unharmed. On the way back the group decided that as John knew who they were he would ultimately inform the security forces, which would be fatal for them, and so they shot him by the side of the road.

His body was discovered the next day by a local friend, Fr. Anthony Gibbs, and taken to Salisbury, now Harare. There followed a concelebrated Requiem Mass at the Cathedral with the Archbishop as the main celebrant. At the time of the Communion three lilies were placed on the coffin at the request of a dear friend who said they were a memento of John’s great love of the Trinity. To everyone’s astonishment at the same time three drops of blood were seen to fall from the coffin. This was regarded as a symbol of the Trinity. The undertaker was shattered as he thought he had not prepared the body adequately and had the coffin moved back to the mortuary. A Jesuit Priest requested that it should be opened for examination. No blood or dampness was found but it was noticed that John had not been dressed in the Franciscan habit as was his wish. This was rectified and the burial took place at Chishawasha Mission which is run by the Jesuits.

John's chapelWe found the site of the colony dominated by Chigona, a huge shear rock shaped like the keel of a yacht on which John used to run every morning. There is a rough pathway leading to the top on which a cross is based and is now much used by pilgrims. On the site itself John’s later residence, a tin rounded structure erected for him by a local farmer, is decorated by selections of his poems on the walls and a large stone slab shaped like a lectern. The chapel which John created is in the form of a local kraal and contains a locked tabernacle which formerly harboured a consecrated host.

The other kraals and huts for the lepers are scattered around the site. Three of the original lepers are still alive. Two of them live in the modernised clinic down the valley. One, Colleta, who lives on the site with one of her grandsons. She has suffered since the age of 12 when she lost both of her hands. She married one of the patients, had seven children and seventeen grandchildren.

Colleta was probably the last person to speak to John on that fateful night and can remember hearing muffled voices outside her kraal. She is convinced he was shot by local people as John would have known who they were.

photo of memorialThe John Bradburne Memorial Society was founded in 1995 to support the Mutemwa Leprosy Settlement in Zimbabwe and the local branch organises anniversary celebrations. Large and increasing numbers attend, now many thousands, and they are organised by local Franciscan Fathers and Brothers. It is becoming an increasing feature of African Christianity.

IMBA YEMUFI is Shona for “God’s Property”. Pilgrims frequently leave prayer requests and others remove soil from the grave site as they believe it has spiritual powers.

For more information or to make a donation visit

 http://www.johnbradburne.com