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Porres, Martin De, St.

Porres, Martin De, St. 1579–1639

The patron saint of racial and social justice, Martin de Porres was born on December 9, 1579, in Lima, Peru. He was the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and a young, freed black slave named Ana Velasquez. Because of Martin’s dark skin, his father refused to acknowledge him as his own and left Martin and his mother alone. Without the support of his father, Martin and his mother lived in terrible poverty.

As a young boy, Martin became a servant in the Dominican priory and would beg money from the rich citizens of Lima in support of the poor and the sick. Eventually, the Dominican superiors accepted Martin as a brother of the order, ignoring the rule that disallowed a black person from taking vows and receiving the Dominican habit.

As a Dominican brother, Martin dedicated himself to working on behalf of the impoverished and oppressed. For the children living in the slums, he established an orphanage, a children’s hospital, and a school where they could receive a complete education or learn a trade. He oversaw the Dominicans’ infirmary and was known for his tender medical care of those who were ill or suffering. He provided food, clothing, and medicine for the most destitute of Lima’s citizens, and he was especially concerned for those who were oppressed because they were black or of mixed-race ancestry. Drawing on his own experience of racial prejudice and discrimination, and on his commitment to the “poor, rejected Christ,” his actions on behalf of African slaves and the poor who lived in the slums of Lima demonstrated his deep commitment to racial and social justice.

Martin’s kindness toward the impoverished masses and his actions on behalf of justice sometimes led to difficulties between himself and his superiors in the Dominican order. He literally brought the struggles of the poor right into the center of the order’s life—often by giving hospitality to the homeless and hungry at the priory itself, sharing his own living space, or even giving up his bed for a sick person who had no place else to turn. For Martin, this practice of solidarity with those who suffered because of economic or racial injustice was an extremely important value of the religious life. All of Martin’s skills were placed at the service of those who were oppressed and marginalized, and he never ceased in promoting a world where poverty and prejudice were no more.

Martin died from a fever on November 3, 1639, at the age of sixty. His journey toward sainthood began when he was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in 1873. He was officially named a saint on May 16, 1962, by Pope John XXIII. He was the first black American saint and is the patron saint of racial and social justice. Many Catholics in the Americas continue to draw inspiration from his life in their own work on behalf of racial reconciliation.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ellsberg, Robert. 1997. All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time. New York: Crossroads.

García-Rivera, Alejandro. 1995. St. Martin de Porres: The “Little Stories” and the Semiotics of Culture. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

John J. Zokovitch III

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