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Home found where the heart is

18 June 2021

David Harold-Barry reflects on the life of a man in line to become Zimbabwe’s first canonised saint

The John Bradburne Memorial Society

John Bradburne with residents of the Mutemwa Leprosy Care Centre

John Bradburne with residents of the Mutemwa Leprosy Care Centre

JOHN BRADBURNE, an almost exact contemporary of the Duke of Edinburgh, would have celebrated his centenary on 14 June 2021. But John died more than 40 years ago, shot on a lonely road between Harare, Zimbabwe, and the Mozambique border, far from the place of his birth in Cumberland, where his father was Vicar of Skirwith. John had a passionate love for England. Returning home from the war in the East in 1945, he wrote: “I gloated for my country and thought her The fairest sunlit isle where one may stand; I strolled her in my soul.”

The John Bradburne Memorial SocietyThe John Bradburne Memorial Society

These roots were important; and the walls of the builder’s hut beside a leprosy settlement in Zimbabwe, in which he lived and from which he was abducted and led to his death in September 1979, were lined with pictures of English scenes from old calendars.

John put down other roots, too, especially in his spiritual life. Like John Henry Newman, his early formation was in the Church of England, for which he had an abiding love. But, after the war, he met the monks of Buckfast Abbey, in Devon, and decided he must become a Roman Catholic. All the time, he was wrestling with himself and with God.

Never satisfied with a conventional life, John longed to give his life totally. Monastic life didn’t work for him, and he became a pilgrim — even to Jerusalem — before deciding to be a hermit, but he could find nowhere permanent “to lay his head” (Matthew 8.20). He wrote to his wartime Gurkha colleague and friend John Dove, who had become a Jesuit priest and was working in what was then Rhodesia, asking, “Is there a cave in Africa where I could live?” He went; but “cave” life didn’t suit him either.

The John Bradburne Memorial SocietyThe John Bradburne Memorial Society

At one time, he lived in a chicken hut on a Franciscan mission, before eventually finding a place where he was at peace: Mutemwa leprosy settlement, where he became warden, and integrated his search for God with devoted care of the most abandoned and destitute of people. A great friend of John’s, Heather Benoy, says that it was this move that “made” him: in his love for and service of these poorest of people, he found himself.

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.

He had always written poems, but now they poured out of him: “A full measure, pressed down, shaken together, poured into your lap” (Luke 6.38). In the decade from 1969, he wrote some 6000, reflecting his life, his love for the Trinity, for Miriam (as he often called the mother of Jesus), for the sacraments, the trees, the earth, the stars. He celebrated the environment by drawing our attention to the beauty that God gives us, and how it all leads us back to the creator.


JOHN was single-minded, and found “news” — all the wranglings of the world — tiresome and distracting. While he never read a paper or listened to a radio, he knew what was happening, particularly in Rhodesia, where the white settlers were failing to imagine anything other than a continuation of the status quo.

The John Bradburne Memorial SocietyThe John Bradburne Memorial Society

The civil war was closing in, and John — a white man, alone in the bush — was advised to withdraw from his exposed position. But he would not leave his friends, the people with leprosy, who were defenceless against those who wanted to take advantage of the fluid conditions of war. Neighbours encroached with their cattle on the settlement’s land, hoping that the residents would be sufficiently intimidated to move away and they could claim it all.

John told one of those suffering from leprosy, Mai Coleta, that “he was not at peace in his house; that evil stalked on all sides” (Didier Rance, John Bradburne: The vagabond of God, DLT, 2017). Eventually, on 2 September 1979, the mijibhas (go-betweens for the guerrillas) came for him. They led him away for a trial before the guerrilla commander, in a cave in the hills. Pilate-like, the commander found no fault with John, and ordered the mijibhas to return him to Mutemwa, but they took matters into their own hands and did away with him. He was killed on 5 September, and his body was left by the roadside.


THREE things in particular characterise John’s life and legacy. First, no one who met him could ever forget him, Although he loved to be alone, he was a joy to be with, and there seems always to have been jollity in his company — except when he was angry about something that affected others, especially those with leprosy. You left him feeling good about yourself. He drew you out.

The John Bradburne Memorial SocietyJohn Bradburne (1921-79)

Second, he gave a strong witness to what it is to endure stress, misunderstanding, and being thought eccentric or even a fool. Although he was sensitive about himself and others, he did not flinch from the pain and loneliness that his choice of life imposed on him.

And, last, his reaching out to God was passionate and absorbing. He wrote: “God’s love within you is your native land. So search none other, never more depart. For you are homeless save God keeps your heart.”

He was content with the most spartan conditions, and never even remarked on them. His builder’s hut was scorching and mosquito-ridden in summer, and freezing in winter. One winter, when he had been expelled from his job as warden by a narrow-minded committee (after refusing to put number tags around the patients’ necks and reduce still further their already small diet), he lived in a tent on Chigona mountain above the camp, and the August winds shredded his abode. John had no thought for his comfort — only for his quest.


Fr David Harold-Barry SJ was a personal friend of John Bradburne and continues to work with the Jesuits in Zimbabwe.


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