‘Heads I stay, tails I go’.

John Bradburne’s spiritual Odyssey (1921 – 1979)

I never felt the impulsion to put thoughts into verse until that first Spring.  I also believe that anyone who has a talent however small or great, once he is a Catholic should use it for the sake of the Kingdom“.

Prolific poet, military hero, friend of lepers, and a Ulysses of our time, John Bradburne is someone who turns expectations, even those about holiness, upside down. His life is a story of unrelenting twists and turns, which ended with martyrdom in Zimbabwe, but began on 14th June 1921, in Cumbria, in a high Church of England family.

When war broke out in 1939, John applied to join the Indian Army and soon became something of a hero to his comrades: after the Japanese invasion of Malaya he had escaped capture by daring escapes – which included a shipwreck. But even as a soldier he loved silence, nature and poetry; he played the harmonium and had a beautiful singing voice. On his return home he moved close to Buckfast Abbey, Devon, where he worked as a builder’s mate by day, and visited the Abbey in the evening. In 1947, he was received into the Catholic Church on the feast of Christ the King. Drawn to monastic life, he sought to join the Abbey but was told to wait. A crisis followed which led him to a restless search over many years for his spiritual home.

His poetry, prompted by his conversion, became a defining feature of his life, even as his search for a physical home led him ever on. His poems, full of puns and word-play and written on every scrap of paper he could find, mix the mundane with the deeply spiritual. With more than 6000 poems found so far he is perhaps the most prolific English poet.

… oh may this dunce’s typing
Bestir the springs of immortality
And may my wit befit eternity.

My age is fifty-three, my lines are many
And almost all of them not read by any!

John tried to become a monk with various communities; the Carthusians, the Trappists in Jerusalem, and then the Benedictines again in Prinknash, Gloucestershire. He never stayed for very long in the ‘home’ he initially felt he had found. John entrusted his life to the Lord fully, to the point that a flip of a coin could establish God’s will for him: ‘heads I stay, tails I go’. In time, he embraced the ‘strange vagabond’ life to which he felt called. He would follow where God, through circumstances, would lead him, spending time as a sacristan in Italy, as a street musician in London, or a caretaker of a Cardinal’s house in Hertfordshire.

The final chapters of John’s adventurous life were to unfold in Africa. Seeking a cave where he might live and pray, John was invited in 1962 by his life-long friend, the Jesuit Fr John Dove, to come to Zimbabwe as a lay mission helper. Six years before this, John had joined the Franciscan Order as a layman, choosing to live the radical poverty of ‘Il Poverello’. By this point, John’s consciousness of his own vocation had crystallised, as well as his ‘three wishes’ for his life”

“His young ass I am, loosed because He, who has need of nothing, has need of me who am nothing. He alone can use me, and in an extraordinary way which He calls me to walk in….” 

‘First, to serve and live with lepers; The second, to die a martyr; The third, to be buried in the Franciscan habit.’


Each of these wishes, in a mysterious way, was to be granted. 

In 1969 he visited the Mutemwa Leprosy Settlement – and immediately knew that he had found his ‘home’. For the remainder of his life he served the lepers, bathing them, singing to them, fighting for their rights, befriending them. He would eat only once a day and give away his food and clothes. He also, like St Francis, loved animals; once, frustrated by his noisy visitors, he prayed to God to send bees to keep them away.  Soon a whole colony of wild bees settled under his table, where he would sit wearing shorts and writing poetry – and was never stung once!

In 1979, when the Rhodesian civil war came to Mutemwa, John refused to leave the settlement. On 2nd September, he was captured by the guerrillas who, fascinated and bemused, allowed him to go free. On his journey back he was shot in the back and left by the side of the road. On three occasions, local villagers attempted to move his body, but miraculous signs, such as the sound of a choir singing, caused them to flee. His body was subsequently discovered by a Jesuit friend.

At his funeral three drops of fresh blood dripped from his coffin, but no signs of it were found on his body: John was not wearing the Franciscan habit, as he had wished. A habit was found, his body was robed and the coffin finally buried, with no further ‘protest’. His grave on mount Chigona, overlooking Mutemwa, is now a holy place of pilgrimage, and a cross with John’s name has been erected by a man cured of blindness through John’s intercession. In 2001, an enquiry into his canonization began.

John Bradburne

John Bradburne