THE LIFE OF ST. MARTIN
Martin de Porres, O.P. (December 9, 1579 – November 3, 1639), was a lay brother of the Dominican Order who was beatified in 1837 by Pope Gregory XVI and canonized in 1962 by Pope John XXIII. He is the patron saint of mixed-race people and all those seeking interracial harmony.
He was noted for work on behalf of the poor, establishing an orphanage and a children’s hospital. He maintained an austere lifestyle, which included fasting and abstaining from meat. Among the many miracles attributed to him were those of levitation, bilocation, miraculous knowledge, instantaneous cures, and an ability to communicate with animals.
Juan Martin de Porres was born in the city of Lima, in the Viceroyalty of Peru, on December 9, 1579, the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman, Don Juan de Porres. His mother was a freed slave from Panama, of African or possibly part Native American descent, named Ana Velázquez. Who was born in Panama. He had a sister named Juana, born three years later in 1581. After the birth of his sister, the father abandoned the family. Ana Velasquez supported her children by taking in laundry. He grew up in poverty and, when his mother could not support him, Martin was confided to a primary school for two years, and then placed with a barber/surgeon to learn the medical arts. He spent hours of the night in prayer, a practice which increased as he grew older.
By law in Peru, descendants of Africans and Indians were barred from becoming full members of religious orders. The only route open to Martin was to ask the Dominicans of Holy Rosary Priory in Lima to accept him as a “donado”, a volunteer who performed menial tasks in the monastery in return for the privilege of wearing the habit and living in the religious community. At the age of 15 he asked for admission to the Dominican Convent of the Rosary in Lima and was received first as a servant boy, and as his duties grew he was promoted to almoner.
Martin continued to practice his old trades of barbering and healing and performed many, many miraculous cures. He also took on kitchen work, laundry, and cleaning. After eight years at Holy Rosary, the prior, Juan de Lorenzana, decided to turn a blind eye to the law and permit Martin to take his vows as a member of the Third Order of Saint Dominic. But Holy Rosary was home to 300 men, and not all were as open-minded as Prior de Lorenzana. One of the novices called Martin a “mulatto dog.” One of the priests mocked him for being illegitimate and descended from slaves.
When de Porres was 24, in 1603, he was allowed to profess religious vows as a Dominican laybrother. 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. It is said that when his convent was in debt, he implored them: “I am only a poor mulatto, sell me.” Martin was deeply attached to the Blessed Sacrament, and he was praying in front of it one night when the step of the altar he was kneeling on caught fire. Throughout all the confusion and chaos that followed, he remained where he was, unaware of what was happening around him.
A mid twentieth century stained glass representation of Martid de Porres in St Pancras Church, Ipswich with a broom, rosary, parrot and monkey
When de Porres was 34, after he had been given the religious habit of a coadjutor brother, Martin was assigned to the infirmary, where he was placed in charge and would remain in service until his death at the age of 59. He was known for his care of the sick. His superiors saw in him the virtues necessary to exercise unfailing patience in this difficult role. It was not long before miracles were attributed to him. Saint Martin also cared for the sick outside his convent, often bringing them healing with only a simple glass of water. He ministered without distinction to Spanish nobles and to slaves recently brought from Africa. One day an aged beggar, covered with ulcers and almost naked, stretched out his hand, and Martin took him to his own bed. One of his brethren reproved him. Martin replied: “Compassion, my dear Brother, is preferable to cleanliness.”
When an epidemic struck Lima, there were in this single Convent of the Rosary sixty friars who were sick, many of them novices in a distant and locked section of the convent, separated from the professed. Martin is said to have passed through the locked doors to care for them, a phenomenon which was reported in the residence more than once. The professed, too, saw him suddenly beside them without the doors having been opened. Martin continued to transport the sick to the convent until the Provincial Superior, alarmed by the contagion threatening the friars, forbade him to continue to do so. His sister, who lived in the country, offered her house to lodge those whom the residence of the religious could not hold. One day he found on the street a poor Indian, bleeding to death from a dagger wound, and took him to his own room until he could transport him to his sister’s hospice. The prior, when he heard of this, reprimanded de Porres for disobedience. He was extremely edified, however, by his reply: “Forgive my error, and please instruct me, for I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity. The prior gave him liberty thereafter to follow his inspirations in the exercise of mercy.
De Porres did not eat meat. He begged for alms to procure necessities the convent could not provide. In normal times Martin succeeded with his alms to feed 160 poor persons every day, and distributed a remarkable sum of money every week to the indigent. Side by side with his daily work in the kitchen, laundry and infirmary, Martin’s life is said to have reflected extraordinary gifts: ecstasies that lifted him into the air, light filling the room where he prayed, bilocation, miraculous knowledge, instantaneous cures and a remarkable rapport with animals.
De Porres founded in the city of Lima a residence for orphans and abandoned children.
Death and commemoration
San Martin de Porres Catholic Church in Laredo, Texas
St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church in Jensen Beach, Florida
St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
De Porres was a friend of both St. John Massias and St. Rose of Lima. By the time he died, on November 3, 1639, he had won the affection and respect of many of his fellow Dominicans as well as a host of people outside the priory. Word of his miracles had made him known as a saint throughout the region. As his body was displayed to allow the people of the city to pay their respects, each person snipped a tiny piece of his habit to keep as a relic. It is said that three habits were taken from the body. His body was then interred in the grounds of the monastery.
After de Porres died, the miracles and graces received when he was invoked multiplied in such profusion that his body was exhumed after 25 years and said to be found intact, and exhaling a fine fragrance. Letters to Rome pleaded for his beatification; the decree affirming the heroism of his virtues was issued in 1763 by Pope Clement XIII. Pope Gregory XVI beatified Martin de Porres in 1837. Nearly 125 years later, Blessed Martin was canonized in Rome by Pope John XXIII on May 6, 1962. His feast day is November 3. He is the patron saint of people of mixed race, and of innkeepers, barbers, public health workers and more.
De Porres is commemorated in the Calendar of Saints of the Church of England on 3 November.
Martin de Porres is often depicted as a young mulatto friar (he was a Dominican brother, not a priest, as evidenced by the black scapular and capuce he wears, while priests of the Dominican order wear all white) with a broom, since he considered all work to be sacred no matter how menial. He is sometimes shown with a dog, a cat and a mouse eating in peace from the same dish.
De Porres’ 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.
Today, de Porres is commemorated by, among other things, a school building that houses the medical, nursing, and rehabilitation science schools of the Dominican University of Santo Tomas in the Philippines. A programme of work is also named after him at the Las Casas Institute at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford. He is also the titular saint of the parish of St. Martin de Porres in Poughkeepsie, NY and St. Martin de Porres Marianist elementary school in Uniondale, NY.
In popular culture
In the 1980 novel A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius Reilly contemplates praying to Porres for aid in bringing social justice to the black workers at the New Orleans factory where he works. In music, the first track of jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams’s album Black Christ of the Andes is titled “St. Martin De Porres.”
There are several Spanish and Mexican works regarding his life in cinema and television, starring Cuban actor Rene Muñoz, the most of them referring to his mulatto origin, his miracles and his life of humilty. The most known movies are Fray Escoba (Friar Broom) (1963) and Un mulato llamado Martin (A mulatto called Martin) (1975).
San Martin De Porres is recognized as Papa Candelo in the Santeria Religion of Peru, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba and many places the culture of the African diaspora thrives.
In the Moone Boy episode “Godfellas”, the character Martin Moon is shown to be named by his grandfather after San Martin De Porres. Humorously, his grandfather is unable to actually remember any of San Martin’s accomplishments, and simply refers to him as “One of the black ones” when asked about him.