St. Martin de Porres (1579-1639)
Patron of the Dominican Mission Foundation
Martin de Porres was born in Lima, Peru in 1579, son of a Spanish nobleman and a freed African slave. Being of mixed blood, he experienced early-on a sense of discrimination and inability to fit in—his own father had even abandoned his "half-breed" son—and Martin began to identify with other outsiders: Lima's indigenous who had been subjugated by the Spanish conquerors; African slaves doing forced labor in the gold and silver mines; certainly those of mixed blood like himself; and all the poor and needy he encountered. It is said that when his mother sent him to the market, he would give the money to beggars and return home empty-handed.
When his mother could no longer support both him and his sister, eight-year-old Martin was sent away to school for two years. Soon he was placed as an apprentice to a barber, which at that time also meant learning to be a pharmacist, a physician, and a surgeon. Martin, already feeling the growing urge to help other poor and oppressed outsiders, was happy with his new post.
Young Martin had also become known for his nightly praying on his knees before a crucifix. At fifteen he was admitted to the Dominican Monastery of the Rosary in Lima as a Third Order (Lay) Dominican, which was all he could hope for since, at the time, the Order did not allow anyone with African or native blood to be professed or ordained. Martin's only desire was to serve, and since he felt unworthy of anything higher, he was perfectly content, smiling as he swept the floors and cleaned the bathrooms.
It would not be long, however, before his apprentice skills were recognized, and he became the barber for the monastery, followed soon by the post of medical assistant in their infirmary. In just a few years he was seeing to the medical needs of 300 Dominican friars, a nearby convent of sisters, the monastery's labor force, and indeed, all the sick and needy of Lima who had heard of his gifts. So when he was just 24, after experiencing his joyful selflessness, patience, and humility for nine years, the Order made an exception and insisted that he profess his vows as a coadjutor brother. He ministered as such until his death at 60.
Brother Martin would spend his days begging for alms in order to acquire needed supplies for the poor. He was able to feed about 160 people a day and give away about $2,000.00 worth of goods a week, an unfathomable sum in the 1600s. He roamed Lima armed with medicine and bandages, food and clothing, visiting hospital wards, prison cells, and hovels, often staying by sick beds through the night. He personified the spirit of true Christian social justice, seeking out diseased beggars and slaves and ostracized indigenous families, treating all with the same dignity that Jesus would have done. One well-known story recalls him bringing an elderly beggar, his body covered with ulcerated sores, to his own bed to treat and watch over him. When one of the brothers told him he had gone too far, Martin replied, "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."
Brother Martin's ability to heal wounds and cure diseases often moved from the natural world to the supernatural, as miracles began to be reported. Stories were spreading about how he healed a man who had blood poisoning by rubbing his wound with rosemary and making the sign of the cross. Many were healed by simply drinking a glass of water he brought them. Several reported that he suddenly appeared out of nowhere as soon as they called for help, sometimes in spite of locked or bolted doors; and occasionally he would be sighted at sick beds in faraway countries, though he never traveled outside of Lima!
Brother Martin is also remembered for building an orphanage, and staffing it with teachers, for Lima's abandoned children; building hospitals; providing agricultural training for youth; and planting fruit orchards to feed the poor, all through his fundraising skills which were nothing short of miraculous.
In 1962 Pope John XXIII canonized him, proclaiming, "Saint Martin, always obedient and inspired by his Divine Teacher, dealt with his brothers with that profound love which comes from pure faith and humility of spirit. He loved men because he honestly looked on them as God's children and as his own brothers and sisters. Such was his humility that he loved them even more than himself, and considered them to be better and more righteous than he was. He excused the faults of others. He forgave the bitterest injuries, convinced that he deserved much severer punishments on account of his own sins. He tried with all his might to redeem the guilty; lovingly he comforted the sick; he provided food, clothing, and medicine for the poor; he helped, as best he could, farm laborers and Negroes, as well as mulattoes, who were looked upon at that time as akin to slaves: thus he deserved to be called by the name the people gave him: 'Martin of Charity.' " And indeed, there is no Dominican more fitting than St. Martin de Porres to be our inspiration and our patron.