Martin de Porres was the first black man to be allowed to join the Dominicans in Peru. He was a man of love and wonders. He was born in the city of Lima in 1597, son of a Spanish gentleman and a black woman who was a former slave. At the time of his death in 1639 he was already regarded as a saint. He was famous throughout Lima for his care of the sick and for his many miracles of reconciliation and healing.
Martin grew up in poverty and prayer. In 1612, when he was fifteen he entered the Dominican Convent of the Rosary in Lima as a servant boy. Because of his evident holiness, he was eventually accepted as Dominican Brother in 1630, and put in charge of the infirmary. He cared for the sick both inside and outside the community.
He cured many people. ‘I cure them, but God heals them’, Martin would say, and he believed that fullness of health comes from God. He sometimes got into trouble with his superiors, but would suggest that charity was more important than obedience, and that compassion was more important than cleanliness.
He embodied reconciliation: he not only brought together the dog and the mouse and the cat, but all those who were estranged and caught up in anger. His prayer life was intense, and he was often found levitating in the chapel.
Martin was beatified in 1837 and canonized in 1962. He is the patron saint of people of mixed race, and of inn-keepers, barbers, and public health workers.
Mum Shirl, a great Aboriginal elder in Australia, carried a statue of St Martin de Porres in her pocket when she visited young men in gaol. She used his story to urge the young men to pray and hope, because ‘He was a black man like you’. She kissed his statue so often that she kissed the brown paint off his face, and his face became white, and she laughed and laughed. Martin would have laughed too, she would say.