St. Martin de Porres

(1579-1639)

St. Martin de Porres was a Peruvian black, but Catholics of both South and North America have adopted him as patron and symbol of the Africans who came to the Americas out of force, not out of choice.

Martin was the son of Anna Velasquez, a free black woman, and a white father. The baptismal record said the father was unknown. Actually, he was John de Porres, a knight of noble family. He was repelled, we are told, when he saw that his son was so dark-skinned (what did he expect?). But, to his credit, eight years later he acknowledged the paternity of Martin and his younger sister, and promised to pay for their upbringing. Nevertheless, it was Anna who did the raising. The two children had little to aspire to in racist Lima.

Surprisingly, neither child grew up embittered. At age 12, Martin was apprenticed to a “surgeon,” at that time a combination of barber, druggist, physician and surgeon. Once trained, he began to use his skills to serve the poor. After four years he applied for entrance into the Dominican monastery of the Holy Rosary: not as a lay-brother (he was too humble to consider that) but as a lay helper.

By the end of nine years, however, he had so impressed the Dominican Fathers with his prayerfulness, humility and charity, that they urged him to become a lay-brother. He joined the community as such, and proved to be one of its glories.

Brother Martin was a model religious. His tasks may have been lowly, but his holiness transfigured them. Not only was he barber-clothier-nurse to his fellow-friars, he spread his ministry to the rest of Lima. Each day he distributed food to the hungry, he was doctor to the sick, and he helped to establish an orphanage and a hospice for abandoned infants. A good manager, he knew how to collect funds and budget them. He was happy to train others in his many small skills. For Martin, all people were God’s children. There was no distinction between rich or poor or white or black or red.

In addition to these human talents, God graced him with charismatic gifts: visions, ecstasies, bilocation (being two places at the same time), healing, supernatural understanding. Particularly notable was his rapport with lesser animals. Like St. Francis of Assisi, he treated them as brothers and sisters, and they did whatever he told them to do. His sister helped him by keeping an “orphanage” in her home for stray dogs and cats.

St. Martin’s fellow-Dominicans, even the priests, so respected his wisdom that they engaged him as their spiritual director. But if he consented to this unusual request, it was with a protest of his own unworthiness, calling himself a “poor slave” and even a “mulatto dog.” Indeed, once when his convent’s funds were low, he urged his superior to sell him into slavery, and use the price to balance the accounts.

Although Lima was a haughty city, it counted among its citizens in the same generation four remarkable saints who were friends of each other. St. Toribio, the archbishop; St. Rose of Lima; St. John Massias (another Dominican lay-brother); and St. Martin. Haughty or not, the people of Lima appreciated this quartet. When Martin de Porres died, prelates and noblemen vied for the honor of carrying him to his grave. Beatified in 1837, he was canonized in 1962.

We recall Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan: the man who, though himself a outcast, did not hesitate to help anybody who was in need. Martin de Porres was a latter-day Samaritan. For him the commandment to love neighbor ruled out any form of discrimination. Yes, even against birds and beasts and creatures that scurry through the dark. God made us all.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

(This account of Martin’s life was found among Father’s papers after he died, much of it hand-written. We include it here as a tribute to him, and hope that we got it right!)

St. Martin de Porres was a Peruvian black, but Catholics of both Americas have adopted him as patron and symbol of the Africans who crossed the Atlantic out of force, not out of choice.

Martin was the son of Anna Velasquez, a free black woman, and a white father. His baptismal record says that the father was unknown. Actually, he was John de Porres, a knight of noble family. John was repelled, we are told, when he saw that his son was so dark-skinned. But, to his credit, eight years later he acknowledged the paternity of Martin and his younger sister, and promised to pay for their upbringing. Nevertheless, it was Anna Velasquez who did the raising. The two children had little to aspire to in racist Lima.

Surprisingly, neither child grew up embittered. At age 12, Martin was apprenticed to a “surgeon,” a term applied at that time to a combination of barber, druggist, physician and surgeon. Once trained, he began to use his medical skills to serve the poor. After four years he applied for entrance into the Dominican monastery of the Holy Rosary: not as a lay-brother (he was too humble to consider that) but as a lay helper.

By the end of nine years, however, he had so impressed the Dominican Fathers with his prayerfulness, humility and charity, that they urged him to become a lay-brother. He joined the community as such, and proved to be one of its glories.

Brother Martin was a model religious. His tasks may have been lowly, but his holiness transfigured them. Not only was he barber-clothier-nurse to his fellow-friars; he spread his ministry to the rest of Lima. Each day he distributed food to the hungry, he was doctor to the sick, and he helped to establish an orphanage and a hospice for abandoned infants. A good manager, he knew how to collect funds and budget them. He was happy to train others in his many small skills. For Martin, all people were God’s children. There was no distinction between rich or poor; or white or black; – or red.

In addition to these human talents, God graced him with many charismatic gifts: visions, ecstasies, prophecies, bilocation (being two places at the same time), healing the men (and animals), and supernatural understanding.

St. Martin’s fellow-Dominicans, even the priests, so respected this lay-brother’s wisdom that they engaged him as their spiritual director. But if he consented to this unusual request, it was with a protest of his own unworthiness, calling himself a “poor slave” and even a “mulatto dog.” Indeed, once when his convent’s funds were low, he urged his superior to sell him into slavery, and use the price to balance the accounts.

Lima was one of Peru’s pioneer cities, and as such it had a record of early violence. But it also maintained a record of Christian holiness. Four of its earliest citizens: St. Toribio, its archbishop; St. Rose of Lima; St. John Massias O.P.; St. Martin de Porres – all contemporaries and friends. They certainly worked toward the establishment of the Catholic faith in Peru. It is conceivable that St. Martin, who in his day accepted the title “mulatto dog”, was by virtue of his “pure love of God” the most influential of the four. When he died, the prelates and noted citizens of Lima strove for the honor of being his pall-bearers.

Many pictures of Martin show him with a mouse at his feet. This is meant to recall his deal with a revolt by the mice of Lima’s monastery, perhaps the best known of his many encounters with God’s lesser creatures.

Lima’s Dominican monastery possessed many animals, among which were a veritable army of mice. At one time these “critters”, feeling that they had not been given enough food, revolted against the friars by swarming into the convent’s wardrobe, where the clean sheets and other linens were carefully stored, to be used only for the sick. The critters began at once to eat and pollute these miles of fabric reserved for the sick into a poisonous, stinking pile of rags.

As chief medic of the monastery and the manager of its foodstuffs, Brother Martin had the duty of finding a method of halting such revolts, once and for all.

He strode into the laundry room among the rebellious beasties and picked up one of them & lifted him up firmly, face-to-face. After the scared mouse had quieted a little, he smiled at the captive and looked him in the eye. “Little brother”, he asked him gently, “why are you and your companions doing so much harm to the things belonging to the sick? Look, I will not kill you, but you are to assemble all your friends and send them to the far end of the garden. Every day I’ll bring you food if you leave the wardrobe alone.”

The captive mouse grew calmer. Then he looked the friar directly in the eyes as if to say, “Agreed; I accept the offer.” Martin released him, and off he went.

In seconds, the mutinous mice popped out of every nook and cranny of the wardrobe, and rushed down pell-mell to the end of the garden, and began to burrow mouse holes into their new territory. St. Martin then rewarded them by fulfilling his part of the bargain. Each day he brought them food. They forgot all about the wardrobe. The saint also reminded them henceforth to love and respect the rights of all the other creatures of God.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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