John Bradburne’s life began in Cumbria, England, on the 14th of June, 1921. His life nearly ended during service to his nation in Malaya. John survived the fall of Singapore so that he could give up his life during service to God instead – he was martyred on the 5th of September, 1979 in Rhodesia. Today, we will explore Bradburne’s rather unknown life and cause for canonization. He is certainly a candidate being considered by the Church, and unfortunately has yet to receive the title “Servant of God.” However, his life, especially his tragic death at the hand of what history considers liberators, clearly demonstrates that one day, Bradburne will be recognized as a Martyr and a Saint.
Before we can talk about Bradburne’s life as a Catholic, we must look at him before his conversion. He entered the Church in 1947, two years after the close of the Second World War. Bradburne had been a soldier during that era of death and destruction. He was with the the 9th Gurkha Rifles of the Indian Army, stationed in British Malaya to help hold off the invading Japanese.
The British were beat at Singapore. Winston Churchill considered the city’s fall “the worst disaster” in British military history. 80,000 soldiers were taken prisoner by the Japanese, alongside the 50,000 already captured before the surrender at Singapore. Bradburne was not among those 80,000. Instead, he fled to the jungle, staying there for a month with a few others. One can only imagine the difficulties of surviving in such a harsh, foreign environment for so long, all while remaining undetected, hidden away from the enemy. It was clear they had to get away and back to the British army proper, so Bradburne and another officer attempted to sail towards Sumatra in a sampan. They shipwrecked – but that was no problem, because they tried again. Rescued by the Royal Navy, Bradburne returned to India. He was recommended for the Military Cross, but never received it. The rest of his service took place in Burma with Brigadier Orde Wingate’s Chindits. There, he again saw all that the war had to offer.
After the war, he felt compelled to serve God. A religious experience in Malaya is said to have sparked his conversion. This experience, which unfortunately I have been unable to find a detailed description of, led him to the Buckfast Abbey, where he stayed with the Benedictines for some time. He wanted to become a monk, but he hadn’t been in the Church long enough, and at the same time, he felt the urge to pilgrimage, to travel. For the next sixteen years, John found himself wandering England, France, Italy, Greece, and the Middle East. In Palestine, he joined an Order devoted to the conversion of the Jews, the Order of Our Lady of Mount Sion. He stayed in Rome for a year, living in a small Church where he played the organ during Mass. He tried to be a Hermit on Dartmoor. He was at the Prinknash Abbey for some time. He was a member of the Westminster Cathedral choir as a Sacristan, as well. Cardinal Godfrey had John be the caretaker for his country house in Hertfordshire. He joined the Franciscan Order as a layman. He had wandered about for quite some time, but he was seemingly ending up back where he started – England.
In 1962, he wrote to a friend in Rhodesia – “Is there a cave in Africa where I can pray?” Invited to the country to help the missionaries, Bradburne told a Franciscan priest he had three goals. To help the victims of leprosy, to die a martyr, and to be buried in the habit of St. Francis. Well, he would achieve all three goals.
After a few years in Rhodesia, Bradburne became the warden of the Mutemwa Leprosy Settlement in 1969. This position lasted until 1973, when he was removed from the position – officially for “being careless with supplies and not keeping proper books.” However, he kept serving the lepers at Mutemwa, as he had been assigned chaplain by the local Archbishop. This service continued until 1979, when he was abducted by Mugabe’s guerrillas from the colony. He had refused to leave when the bush war intensified, specifically bringing the war closer and closer to the Mutemwa settlement. The insurgents took him prisoner on the 2nd of September, 1979. They claimed he was an informant. Unless the lepers were active participants in the revolutionary movements, it is unlikely John could have informed the Rhodesian security forces about anything. However, John was white, and the war in Rhodesia was particularly racially enflamed. While the security forces and supporters of Ian Smith’s government were a mix of black and white Rhodesians, the revolutionary fighters of ZANLA and ZANU considered most whites their enemies. Missionaries were often in the crossfire, even when many missionaries were neutral or even naively supported their cause. Some of the revolutionaries saw Christianity as a tool of white oppression and control – it was the white man’s religion, and for this reason it could not be trusted!
Martyred on the 5th, three days later, John was shot while kneeling to pray. He was executed because they thought he was an informant – he was a white Christian, a lay monastic, certainly he could not be trusted by the black liberators. His skin color and faith were apparently foreign to their land, a land they had fled to be trained and armed as violent thugs. John’s murderers saw him as an invasive enemy, when in reality he had spent his many years in the country helping and caring for the weak and the diseased.
Unfortunately, most sources that talk about John Bradburne try their best to dodge the topic of who killed him. One document written for the Vatican gives all the details about his death, except for which side killed him. We can blame this on the subversives in the Church, many of which were supportive of Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. This naive support did not save men like John Bradburne from impromptu execution. It was a very poor choice, one derived from allegiance to politics before allegiance to faith. That is an entirely different topic, however, one to explore in detail later.
Now that you have heard a brief summary of John Bradburne and his life, I think I can confidently assume you will agree with my assessment. John was a good man who devoted his life to God and to helping those in need. He died because he refused to leave those in need behind. He is worthy of canonization, but perhaps there is a reason he has yet to be canonized. Just as those who work for his cause seem to prescribe his death to the crossfire of war and nothing more, Bradburne’s full story may be forgotten just like so many other innocents who were slaughtered during the bush war. Buried or modified to not justify who history has cast as the bad guys. Such narratives must be maintained, it seems, even at the cost of honoring those who have died in service of the faith.
Bradburne was buried in the habit of St. Francis, just as he wished. Please pray for his canonization, though it may have to wait for a more agreeable Pope.