Saint Martín de Porres (1579–1639) spent his entire life in Lima, Peru. A Dominican monk known as a healer and an indefatigable worker in charitable service to the poor, Martín was canonized in 1962 by Pope John Paul XXIII, who designated him the patron saint of universal brotherhood.
Always a famous figure within Latin American Catholicism, Martín began to receive renewed attention in the later years of the twentieth century. Partly this was due to his mixed-race background; he was one of a comparatively small number of Catholic saints who could be classified as black, and he ministered without distinction to Spanish nobles and to slaves recently brought from Africa. Another fascinating aspect of Martín's life and legacy has emerged from the fund of miraculous legends that surround his memory. Such legends are not unique to Martín, but he was clearly a religious leader with a perennial appeal to the popular imagination. Finally, Martín's sometimes defiant attachment to the ideal of social justice achieved deep resonance in a church attempting to carry forward that ideal in today's modern world.
Born to Freed Panamanian-Born Slave
Martín de Porres was born in Lima, Peru, on December 9, 1579. His father was a Spanish conquistador named Don Juan de Porres and his mother was a freed slave from Panama, of African or possibly part Native American descent, named Ana Velázquez. Seeing that the child had African rather than European features, Don Juan de Porres refused to acknowledge his paternity. Martín was baptized the day he was born, with notation on the baptismal certificate reading "father unknown" (it is quoted in full by J.C. Kearns in The Life of Blessed Martín de Porres). He was raised by his mother in extreme poverty, on the very lowest rungs of early Spanish colonial society; in the eyes of the nobility, a mark of illegitimacy was exceeded in shamefulness only by a child's racially mixed heritage.
Stories of Martín's remarkable generosity apparently began to surround him even in childhood; sent to the local market by his mother, he would often give away the contents of his basket to homeless persons before reaching home. By the time he was 10 he was spending several hours of each day in prayer, a practice he maintained for the rest of his life. He once asked his landlady for the stumps of some candles she had discarded, and she later saw him using their meager light to behold a crucifix before which he knelt, weeping. Perhaps as a result of the boy's spiritual accomplishments, Don Juan de Porres acknowledged when Martín was eight years old that he was Martín's father, a remarkable admission at the time. (He finally abandoned Ana Velázquez for good after the birth of another daughter.) Ana recognized in her son the signs of an intense spiritual quality, and she tried to obtain for him an education beyond mere subsistence level. When Martín was 12, he was apprenticed to a barber—a profession that in sixteenth-century society involved much more than cutting hair. Young Martín learned the rudiments of surgery: administering herbal remedies, dressing wounds, and drawing blood—something that was thought to be curative at the time.
At 15, Martín decided to devote himself to the religious life. He applied to join the Convent of the Rosary in Lima, a Dominican monastery. Racial restrictions dictated that he be given the position of "tertiary" or lay helper, which he enthusiastically accepted. The bishop at the monastery, according to an early biography quoted by Alex García-Rivera in St Martín de Porres, said that "there are laws that we must respect. These indicate that the Indians, blacks, and their descendants, cannot make profession in any religious order, seeing that they are races that have little formation as of yet." Martín was able to exercise his medical skills after being put in charge of the monastery infirmary, and he was often given the monastery's basic chores such as cleaning, cooking, and doing laundry.
Both before and after joining the monastery, Martín suffered incidents of harassment that may well have been racially motivated. The monks for whom he was cooking would hide the kitchen's potholders, and one of the early stories surrounding the young holy man was that he could then pick up the pots with his bare hands and not be burned. Another story concerned Martín's tendency toward self-denial—or, read another way, his determination to identify himself with the lives of Peru's indigenous poor. Told by his superior to retire to bed, Martín responded (according to Kearns), "What! Do you command me, who at home would never have enjoyed the luxuries of life, to betake myself to a soft bed! Father, I beseech you, do not force me to enjoy such an unmerited gratification." Cleaning a toilet one day, he was asked by a monk whether he might not prefer life at the splendid offices of the Archbishop of Mexico. Martín responded, according to Kearns, by quoting the biblical Psalm 83: "I have chosen to be an abject in the house of my God rather than to dwell in the tabernacles of sinners." He qualified this remark by saying that he was not referring to the Archbishop as a sinner, but rather simply that he himself preferred menial tasks. He wore robes until they fell apart, refusing the luxury of new ones.
Religious Devotion Celebrated in Stories
When Martín was 24, in 1603, he gave the profession of faith that allowed him to become a Dominican brother. He is said to have several times refused this elevation in status, which may have come about due to his father's intervention, and he never became a priest. As with any other famous holy man, Martín's life is surrounded by stories, and those stories constitute the primary means of remembering him at a distance of four centuries. The stories surrounding Martín are of two kinds. Some consist of testimony about his character and accomplishments by church officials who knew him, while others seem to be of a more popular character, arising among Lima's impoverished populace, and coming down to the present time partly via oral tradition.
Many stories attest to Martín's exceptional piety. He was said sometimes to be surrounded by a bright light when he prayed, and to be levitated off the floor of a chapel by sheer religious ecstasy. He subsisted for days on bread and water and would do penance for sins by whipping himself with chains. Martín was said to be capable of bilocation (being in two places at once), and individuals from both Africa and Mexico swore that they had encountered him in their home villages even though he was never known to have left Lima. Patients under his care spoke on several occasions of his having walked through locked doors in order to render medical help.
Other tales of the miracles and wonders worked by Martín, however, were more specific to his time and place. He was said to have a supernatural rapport with the natural world. The most famous single story connected with Martín had to do with a group of mice (or rats) that infested the monastery's collection of fine linen robes. Martín resisted the plans of the other monks to lay poison out for the mice. One day he caught a mouse and said (in the rendering of Angela M. Orsini of San Francisco's Martín de Porres House of Hospitality, one of many institutions and schools in the United States named after the Peruvian healer), "Little brothers, why are you and your companions doing so much harm to the things belonging to the sick? Look; I shall not kill you, but you are to assemble all your friends and lead them to the far end of the garden. Everyday I will bring you food if you leave the wardrobe alone"—whereupon Martín lead a Pied Piper-like mouse parade toward a small new den. Both the mice and Martín kept their word, and the closet infestation was solved for good. Martín loved animals of all kinds and seemed to have unusual skills in communicating with them. He would apply his medical skills to the treatment of a wounded dog found wandering the streets with the same energy he would devote to a sick human. Paintings of Martín often depicted him with a mouse, dog, or cat—or sometimes with a broom, symbolizing his devotion to everyday tasks.
Ministered to the Poor and Sick
Many other stories of Martín's goodness pertained to his unwavering efforts to help Lima's poor and ill, often against the wishes of his superiors at the monastery. A sick, aged street person, almost naked and covered with open sores, was taken by Martín to his own bed at the monastery. A fellow monk was horrified, but Martín responded (according to the Lives of the Saints reported on the website of Canada's Monastery of the Magnificat), "Compassion, my dear Brother, is preferable to cleanliness. Reflect that with a little soap I can easily clean my bed covers, but even with a torrent of tears I would never wash from my soul the stain that my harshness toward the unfortunate would create."
He treated victims of bubonic plague without regard to whether they were white, black, or Native American. During one plague outbreak he brought a wounded Native American man into the monastery for treatment even though the Superior administrator of the province had forbidden the admission of the sick owing to fears of contagion. Given a reprimand for disobedience, Martín replied (according to the Monastery of the Magnificat site), "Forgive my error, and please instruct me, for I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity." Martín's skills as a physician spread his name far and wide, and even the Archbishop of Mexico came to Lima to seek his services at one point. He was said to have a miraculous ability to know whether or not a patient would recover. Sometimes he sent sick people (or animals) to the home of his sister Juana when the monastery's facilities were overwhelmed.
Martín was, in the words of Richard Cardinal Cushing (writing in St. Martín de Porres), "a precursor of modern social science," and the Convent of the Rosary while he was there "became the forerunner of the modern medical clinic." To finance all these activities, Martín also became an early specialist in the art of nonprofit fundraising. Spanish nobles gave him large donations so that he could continue his work, and one estimate placed his weekly disbursements of funds at the level of $2,000, an astonishing sum for the period. Martín did not devote these funds exclusively to those in misery, but also tried to level class distinctions. For example, he sometimes provided money for a poor young woman's dowry so that she could marry. When the monastery's finances suffered as a result of his activities, Martín responded (according to American Catholic's Saint of the Day website), "I am only a poor mulatto. Sell me. I am the property of the order. Sell me."
Martín died of a fever in Lima on November 3, 1639, at the age of nearly 60. Despite his renown throughout Latin America, recognition from the Catholic church was slow to come. In 1837 he was beatified, and his feast day is celebrated on November 3. He was canonized as a saint by Pope John XXIII on May 6, 1962, with a contingent of 350 African-American Catholics in attendance. Both Kearns and Cushing called Martín "a pioneer social worker," and when canonized he was designated the patron saint of universal brotherhood. On a more earthly plane, he was also the patron saint of interracial relations, social justice, public education, Peruvian television and public health, trade unions in Spain, mixed-race individuals, and barbers and hair stylists in Italy.
Cushing, Richard Cardinal, St. Martin de Porres, St. Paul Editions, 1962.
García-Rivera, Alex, St. Martín de Porres: The "Little Stories" and the Semiotics of Culture, Orbis, 1995.
Kearns, J.C., O.P., The Life of Blessed Martín de Porres: Saintly American Negro and Patron of Social Justice, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1937.
Manila Bulletin (Philippines), November 3, 2006.
"About St. Martín de Porres," Martin de Porres House of Hospitality, http://www.martindeporres.org (January 21, 2007).
"Saint Martin de Porres," Lives of the Saints, Monastery of the Magnificat, Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, Canada, http://www.magnificat.ca/cal/engl/11-03.htm (January 21, 2007).
"St. Martin de Porres: A Brief Biography," St. Martin de Porres School, Oakland, CA, http://www.stmdp.org/SmdPBioPage.html (January 21, 2007).
"St. Martín de Porres," American Catholic: Saint of the Day, http://www.americancatholic.org (January 21, 2007).
"St. Martin de Porres," St. Patrick's Catholic Church, Washington, DC, http://www.saintpatrickdc.org/ss/1103.htm#mart (January 21, 2007).