On Nov. 3 the Roman Catholic Church celebrates St. Martin de Porres, a Peruvian Dominican brother whose life of charity and devotion led to his canonization as the first black saint of the Americas.
Martin de Porres was born in Lima, Peru during 1579, the son of the Spanish nobleman Don Juan de Porres and the former Panamanian slave Ana Velazquez. His father at first refused to acknowledge the boy publicly as his own, because Martin, like his mother, was black. Though Martin’s father later helped to provide for his education, his son faced difficulties because of his family background.
But Don Juan’s son showed great gifts at a young age. Martin served as apprentice to a doctor, and before the age of 13 he had begun to learn the practice of medicine. The young man also spent hours in prayer, and practiced forms of physical mortification for the good of his soul and others.
During these years Martin had also become a member of the Dominican Third Order, which promoted the group’s spiritual practices among laypersons. He lived in their quarters, and did manual work to earn room and board. But a law preventing people of mixed race from joining religious orders kept him from entering the Dominican Order as a religious brother until 1603.
Before his full admission to the order, Martin had earned the nickname of “the saint of the broom” for his diligence in cleaning the Dominicans’ quarters. After becoming a religious brother, he worked in the order’s infirmary serving the sick, a job he would perform until his death.
He also had the task of begging for alms that the community would use to feed and clothe the poor. Meanwhile, he established an orphanage, and an orchard from which those in need could freely take a day’s supply of fruit.
Victims of medical misfortune began to suspect miracles behind some of the deeply prayerful physician’s cures. Others claimed he had appeared to them supernaturally behind locked doors or under otherwise impossible circumstances. Martin reportedly also had the gift of bilocation, and some of his contemporaries said they encountered him in places as far off as Japan even as he remained in Lima.
Others, meanwhile, marveled at his serenity and generosity.
“Many were the offices to which the servant of God, Brother Martin de Porres, attended,” testified Brother Fernando de Aragones. “Each of these jobs was enough for any one man, but alone he filled them all with great liberality, promptness and carefulness, without being weighed down by any of them.”
“It was most striking, and it made me realize that, in that he clung to God in his soul, all these things were effects of divine grace.”
Martin also loved animals. The saint refused to eat meat, and ran a veterinary hospital for the sick creatures that seemed to seek out his help and protection. Portrayals of the saint often include cats, dogs, and even the rats to whom he showed compassion.
Many residents of Lima already spoke of Brother Martin de Porres as a living saint before his death at age 60 on Nov. 3, 1639. But his canonization did not occur until 1962, under Bl. Pope John XXIII. He is known as a patron of interracial harmony and care for the poor.