Saint Martin de Porres - Apostle of Charity - Apostle of the Slaves
Saint Martin de Porres
Saint Martin de Porres was born in 1579, in Lima, Peru. It was only 83 years after Columbus placed a small Spanish flag on the island of San Salvador, claiming it and the entire new world for the Catholic Queen, Isabella, as it was she who had financed this expedition in thanksgiving to God for deliverance of Spain from the Moors. In 1535, the city of Lima was founded, and in 1551, the Dominicans began a university there. [An aside, the Dominicans were the first order of religious to preach the gospel in Peru.]
Saint Martin de Porres was born of John de Porres, a Spanish nobleman and Knight of the Order of Alcantara, and a black free woman, Anna Velazquez. Martin’s father was not very happy to find his child was black. He did not want to be connected with the child in any way. As a matter of fact, on the baptismal record there was no mention of the father at all. The Baptismal certificates read only “Martin, son of an unknown father.” But some years later, he officially acknowledged Martin as being his son. We’re not sure if John ever married Anna Velazquez. If he did, he didn’t treat her very well. He spent most of his time in other countries, leaving Anna and the children, Martin and his sister Joan to fend for themselves. Though Martin was not from a poor background, you would not have known it by the way he and his family lived. They were always at least borderline poverty, and sometimes full-blown poverty.
But none of this had any detrimental effect on Saint Martin de Porres. If anything, it gave him an understanding and empathy for his poor brothers and sisters. From his earliest days, he focused completely on his Lord present in the tabernacle of all the churches of Lima and in helping out the poor. His mother became furious with him in the early days. She would send Martin shopping for food, entrusting to him the meager pennies the family had, just enough to get some bread and a few necessities to see them through their meals. Martin inevitably took the money and gave it to the poor. When he returned home with nothing in his basket, his mother would let him have it. “How can you give to the poor? We are the poor! It’s bad enough that you will not eat today, but what of your sister and me? We didn’t volunteer to starve!”
Saint Martin de Porres - early years
Saint Martin de Porres got lost in the churches. This was his most favorite time. When he entered the dark, cool church, the entire world was left outside. He was in a haven. He spent hours before the Blessed Sacrament, before the Crucifix looming high on the altar or a statue or painting of Our Lady. This was truly his home. He was Saint Martin de Porres an orphan on pilgrimage, journeying through this time on earth in preparation for his trip to his heavenly Home in Paradise.
Although John de Porres only came to Lima on very rare occasions, he must have been shamed by his relatives or neighbors who could see the way Anna and the two children were living. They needed some kind of home, education, food and clothes. Anna also had need, but John had never cared much about her well-being, so it was not thought that he would now spend any amount of time and money, taking care of her or her children. Never mind that he was the father. Although he had finally recognized them as his own, his behavior towards them was the same as towards a slave. However, when Martin was about eight years old, the father came and took him and his sister back to Ecuador with him, which was where he was living at that time. The children went to school; they were fed and clothed properly. The father actually admitted to being the parent of both children to his various relatives whom they met in the few years they lived in Ecuador.
But when John de Porres left Ecuador to govern Panama, he again dropped the two children off in Lima, at the home of their mother. This time, he left her enough money to get them out of poverty and put Martin through school where he would learn a trade. This was a very important move, and we’re sure it was orchestrated by the Holy Spirit. Martin chose to learn the trade of a barber. Now you may say to yourself, “What’s the big deal about being a barber?” Well, in Europe, as well as in Central and South America, a barber was an honorable profession, like a doctor or a lawyer. It carried with it the same prestige. As a matter of fact, as part of learning to be a barber, Martin also learned surgery, or the surgery of the day, which was letting blood with leeches, healing wounds, broken legs and arms, fractures, and giving out medicine for illness. So the barber was also a surgeon, doctor and pharmacist. [When Penny was a child in Brooklyn, her grandfather’s profession was a barber. He brought that profession over from Sicily. As barber-surgeon-doctor, he was very well respected by the people of Brooklyn.]
Saint Martin de Porres - Servant
For Saint Martin de Porres, this was a God-given gift. He was remarkably good at this profession.
Remember, we’re talking about a twelve year old boy, beginning his apprenticeship as a barber. He learned quickly and well, and before very long, he was outdoing the teacher. The instructor was able to leave him in charge of the shop, knowing full well that whatever happened during his absence, the young barber could manage it as well or better than he. The instructor was very astute in this assumption, because being left on his own was the opportunity Martin wanted and needed. He handled himself brilliantly in many situations where the patients who were brought in, were in very bad condition. He cured them and had them back to work in a short time. His clinic was like an emergency room. Soon, people came into the shop, not looking for the owner, but for Martin. And he never disappointed any of them.
At the beginning, this was a good way for Saint Martin de Porres to continue the works of mercy he had begun as a young boy, when he used to go to the market and wound up giving the family’s money to the poor. Now, he treated the poor and would charge them nothing. This was his way of serving the Lord and putting back in the pot, so to speak, paying the Lord back for the gift of healing which had been given to him through his profession. His fame spread throughout the entire city of Lima. People came for any and every ailment imaginable, and the professional young mulatto2 barber was able to heal them, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Martin never forgot where his gifts were coming from. He never for a moment thought there was anything about him that caused these healings to come about. They were from the Lord, and he knew it.
Saint Martin de Porres - Miraculous Lemon Trees
It was also at this time that the beginning of his special gifts became apparent. One of the first and most lasting was a fruit tree, a lemon tree which Martin planted in the courtyard of his house. No sooner was it planted than it bloomed immediately, and its blossoms gave forth fruit abundantly. The tree continued to yield fruit so bountifully, the branches, weighed down by its yield, often appeared as if they would break. This tree would provide lush lemons until well after Saint Martin de Porres had died. It came to be called Martin’s Miraculous Lemon Tree.
Martin loved Jesus so much, he could not spend enough time with his Lord. He went to the church as often as he could. He would just stay by Our Lord Jesus, adoring Him in the Tabernacle. He spent all his evenings alone in his room, arms outstretched in the form of a cross “en croce” praying, concentrating, in ecstasy. He focused his attention on the Crucifix in front of him. He blocked out every other image in the world but Our Lord Jesus on the Cross. There was a fervent expression of love on his face. This was witnessed by a close associate of his, who peeked in on him through the keyhole of his room as he prayed there on many occasions. Martin and Jesus were becoming so close that anyone or anything else was a distraction. The few hours, he was able to spend before the Blessed Sacrament, were not enough. Martin wanted to spend all his time with Jesus, adoring Him as he did in his cherished hours away from the barber shop.
Saint Martin de Porres - loved by all
During the four-year period of his apprenticeship as a barber/surgeon, Saint Martin de Porres became so proficient in his healing profession, his name became very famous; most especially among the Indians and blacks in the town, both slave and free. He was their symbol of respectability. He gave them self-worth! In an era when the question, often asked among Catholics, was whether blacks had souls and could warrant being baptized, this beautiful young black child of Jesus was proof positive that Jesus was the God of all creatures, large and small, and the blacks in Lima were no exception.
This is one of the reasons that his decision to leave his profession and turn his entire life over to God as a Dominican brother threw them into a panic. His people needed him to be highly visible. They needed Saint Martin de Porres as a representative of the poor and often unwanted people in the city. They needed him to remain an important figure in the town.