HE TURNED his back on his privileged background to care for lepers in Africa - only to die on a dusty roadside, cut down in a hail of bullets by guerrillas wielding AK47 assault rifles.
Now, nearly a quarter of a century after his death, British-born John Bradburne, who eschewed his middle-class origins to become a Franciscan missionary in a leper colony, is being proposed as Zimbabwe’s first saint.
However, his path to canonisation is unlikely to be smooth because he was white and the guerrillas who murdered him in 1979 were supporters of the country’s president Robert Mugabe in his fight for black rule.
The attempt to elevate him to sainthood comes at a time when Mugabe has unleashed one of the most virulent anti-white campaigns ever seen in Africa. And, according to his critics, the last thing the Zimbabwean leader wants is approval by the Vatican for the canonisation of a man martyred by his own followers.
The campaign for Bradburne’s canonisation is being led by one of his former colleagues at the Mutemwa Leprosy Settlement, the 80-year-old Jesuit priest Father John Dove. He said: "John was a strange vagabond of God. The mere mention of his name lightens and brightens the faces of men and women at Mutemwa. There were once 1,000 people there. Today, only 63. John loved them and they loved him."
There are now far fewer people at the settlement than there were in Bradburne’s day because of the wider availability of treatments for the infectious disease.
Commenting on the attempt to elevate Bradburne to sainthood, Dove added: "The cause is under way and is presently on the desk of Archbishop Patrick Chakaipa [the Roman Catholic primate of Zimbabwe] in Harare. It will go forward. It will be considered by the Vatican. John could become Zimbabwe’s first saint."
An elderly man, who suffered from leprosy and was cured, added: "If I told you what John did here, I would burst into tears. He slept with the dying, reading them the New Testament. He gave us his own food. He dug our graves and wrapped our bodies in his only blanket."
But the Archbishop of Harare is a close friend of Mugabe’s and senior Church sources in Harare claim the beatification of Bradburne - the last step towards canonisation - has been vetoed until an African saint has been found for the new Zimbabwe.
A Christian churchgoer, who asked not to be named, said: "It seems there will be affirmative action in heaven as well."
Bradburne’s fellow workers and people who were cared for at the settlement, recall a mystical figure who helped overturn the widely held prejudices about leprosy and allow people to see those he lived with for what they were - fellow human beings with a curable disease.
Bradburne was born in Cumbria in 1921. A cousin of the playwright Terence Rattigan, he was also a distant relative of Britain’s last governor in Rhodesia. During the Second World War, Bradburne served with the 9th Gurkha Rifles. At the fall of Singapore, he escaped to Sumatra after a month living off the bush in the Malayan jungle. Later he went to Burma, where he first met Dove, then serving as a soldier. Bradburne ended the war invalided with recurrent malaria.
He spent the next 16 years wandering between England and Italy and the Middle East, his belongings held in a small Gladstone bag. Finally, Bradburne - who said he had a vision of Christ telling him to go to Africa and care for lepers - wrote to Dove, who was now a Jesuit priest in charge of the Mutemwa Settlement, asking: "Is there a cave in Africa where I can pray?" Bradburne arrived in Rhodesia in 1962, became a member of the Third Order of St Francis and was appointed warden at Mutemwa in 1969.
Dove said: "In John’s life he wanted three things: to work with lepers, to die the death of a martyr and to be buried in a Franciscan habit."
The first wish came true at Mutemwa where Bradburne, who lived alone in a tin hunt on the edge of the mission settlement, nursed almost 80 blind and deformed people. But by the end of the 1970s, the war against white rule was reaching its peak and Bradburne came to the attention of the guerrillas of Mugabe’s liberation army (Zanla). On the night of September 2, 1979, he was abducted, accused of being a Rhodesian spy, put on ‘trial’ and shot. Villagers who discovered the body said when they approached it they heard singing.
And, at his Requiem Mass, another strange event took place, which ensured the fulfilment of his ‘third wish’.
A friend placed three white flowers on the coffin. At the end of the service, three drops of blood are said to have appeared on the floor underneath it.
When the coffin was re-opened, no traces of blood were found but it was noticed that Bradburne had been buried in a simple white shirt. It was removed and a Franciscan habit, instead, was wrapped around him. Since then, dozens of people claim they have had their prayers answered by invoking the name of John Bradburne.
One British man sent 1,000 for the erection of the cross that stands on the top of Mount Chigona, which Bradburne, dubbed the ‘Leper Man’ and used to climb every day to see the sun rise. He says his failing eyesight was restored after he prayed to God through the missionary.
Whether or not Bradburne’s journey to sainthood is ever completed, while he was alive he said his memorial was to be found in the faces of the lepers he loved and served so well.