St. Martin de Porres: The First Black American Saint
On November 3, we celebrate the feast of 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 was born in Lima, Peru in 1579, the son of a Spanish knight, Don Juan de Porres and the former Panamanian slave Ana Velazquez. His father initially 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.
At age 12, Martin studied to be a barber, which at that time meant he was also a druggist, a physician and a surgeon. Once trained, he began to use his skills to serve the poor. He became very well known for his compassion and skill as a barber, and cared for many people as well as animals.
Martin was a pious child, who began praying at a young age. He had a deep devotion to our Lord’s Passion, and prayed for discernment to know how he could show his gratitude to God for this great sacrifice. He believed that God was calling him to a religious vocation. When Martin was fifteen, he began working with the Dominicans as a lay helper and, later became a professed Lay Brother at the Dominican Friary in Lima, where he worked as a barber, a farm laborer, a clothier, and a caregiver for the sick. Each day Martin distributed food to the hungry, he nursed the sick, and he helped to found an orphanage and a hospice for abandoned babies.
Martin devoted himself to severe penances. In turn, God endowed him with many graces and an abundance of spiritual gifts: visions, ecstasies, healing, supernatural understanding, and bi-location (being two places at the same time). Some of his peers said they encountered him in places as far off as Japan even as he remained in Lima.
Martin’s kindness and his love of prayer and humility helped him become friends with many people from all social classes, which enabled him to alleviate the sufferings of many. His popularity allowed him to use all of his extraordinary gifts to serve the poor and to work diligently to promote their cause. Thus, he was nicknamed ‘Martin of Charity’.
St. Martin’s love was shown equally to humans and to animals, including mice. Like St. Francis, Martin treated animals as brothers and sisters and they did whatever he told them to do. He maintained a hospital for cats and dogs at his sister’s house. A close friend of St. Rose of Lima, Martin died in 1639 at the age of sixty and was canonized in 1962.
St. Martin de Porres is the patron saint of: African Americans, barbers; bi-racial people; hair stylists; hairdressers; hotel-keepers; innkeepers; inter-racial justice; mixed-race people; paupers; Peru; poor people; public education; public health; public schools; race relations; racial harmony; social justice; state schools; television.
“Compassion 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.”
– St. Martin De Porres, spoken to his Dominican brothers when admonished for bringing an elderly, dirty beggar off the streets and allowing him to take the saint’s own bed while he cared for the sick man.
Quote about St. Martin de Porres
“Martin lived from the adoration of the Lord present in the Eucharist, passing entire nights in prayer before the crucified Lord in the tabernacle, while during the day he tirelessly cared for the sick and assisted the socially outcast and despised, with whom he, as a mulatto, identified because of his origins. The encounter with the Lord, who gives himself to us from the cross, makes all of us members of the one body by means of the one bread, which when responded to fully moves us to serve the suffering, to care for the weak and the forgotten.”
— Excerpted from: LECTURE BY H.E. CARDINAL RATZINGER AT THE BISHOPS’ CONFERENCE OF THE REGION OF CAMPANIA IN BENEVENTO (ITALY) ON THE TOPIC: “EUCHARIST, COMMUNION AND SOLIDARITY”, Sunday June 2, 2002
Prayer to St. Martin de Porres
To you, Saint Martin de Porres, we prayerfully lift up our hearts filled with serene confidence and devotion. Mindful of your unbounded and helpful charity to all levels of society and also of your meekness and humility of heart, we offer our petitions to you. Pour out upon our families the precious gifts of your solicitous and generous intercession; show to the people of every race and every color the paths of unity and of justice; implore from our Father in heaven the coming of his kingdom, so that through mutual benevolence in God men may increase the fruits of grace and merit the rewards of eternal life. Amen.