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Grandad and the African St Francis

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My grandad, Donald Burt was a massive wow, with red wine, paint and stories bulging in his ample belly... along with heroic amounts of pickled onions and cheese.

He sadly passed away last year, but has left enough incredible tales to wear a quill down to a molten stem.

And we recently happened upon one of his most extraordinary yarns, excitedly scribbled onto some now-yellowing paper, which will make you quiver like a stricken blancmange.

The Second World War had been over for almost a year and grandad met a like-minded scamp by the name of John Bradburne, who had moved down to Devon and was as keen as both mustard and grandad to enjoy the new freedom of peacetime, or in grandad's words: "to sample as many ales and get acquainted with as many reasonably attractive women, as possible."
Little was known of his carefree, lost years with my grandad and his shocking transformation to saintliness, until now, which is why I wanted to share this remarkable story with you.

This month marks the 31st anniversary of something truly shocking that happened to the man who was an exceptional drinking buddy to my grandad, but something entirely different to the rest of the world.

John had served with the Ninth Gurka Rifles and with Wingate's Chindits in Burma and was relieved to put this behind him, acquire second-hand cars of mid-Thirties vintage and range the country with grandad.

Like grandad, he was a good-looking, well-educated, former public schoolboy and had little trouble with the ladies. He had a good voice and referred to himself as a troubadour, regularly starting off drunken sing-alongs.

But with little warning he would often disappear, and after much digging grandad discovered he was staying for a short period in a Franciscan Abbey near Torquay. Over the next few years John would rejoin grandad during their boozy escapades.

And after one valiant liver-pickling session, he revealed that he had been wandering between Rome and the Middle East and was considering traveling to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to establish a Catholic training centre at Salisbury (now Harare).

Naturally, since John had been committing the sort of sins Jesus died for, this caused grandad's beardy jaw to meet his wine-sploshed shoes.

And on another trip to London, where grandad was enjoying normal student life, John informed him that he had been staying at Buckfast Abbey, been accepted as a Franciscan Laybrother and was shortly leaving for Africa.

From that point on, curious tales found their way back to grandad: John was living in a shack, attracting much attention from locals. He prayed for privacy, and a swarm of African bees settled around his shack to keep visitors at bay, which he fed with prune juice and altar wine.
He became the warden of a Leper Colony in Mutemwa in 1969, tending to more than 80 people. He helped build their church and still embraced his love of music by teaching the lepers Latin for the Gregorian plainchant. To this day, the lepers still play their instruments with the stumps of their hands, enjoying the music that John had taught them.

But he was sacked in 1973, for refusing to hang numbers around the necks of his lepers and insisting they should each have at least one loaf of bread a week.

A kindly farmer, fearing a leopard which shared the Chicona Mountains, built him a tin hut where he lived the remaining six years of his life, still working at the chapel in Mutemwa, where he continued tending to the sick and dying. But he was not popular with the locals, whom he accused of stealing from the lepers.

They sought revenge by informing Robert Mugabe's guerillas that he was a spy for the Rhodesian security forces. He was abducted, marched to a remote cave in the Inyanga Mountains, interrogated and found guilty, because he said little and simply prayed. They subjected him to mockery in front of a crowd, trying to make him eat excrement, sleep with frightened girls and dance before them - all of which, he refused.

A commander who knew about his work ordered his release and he was marched out of the bush to the main road at night, where he intended to set off back to the lepers at Mutemwa. Their leader ordered John to walk ahead and turn and face him. He obeyed and again, knelt down and prayed. But when he rose, the guerrilla shot him dead and left his half-naked body by the roadside. "Come Sweet Death on Wednesday," he had once written, and it was a Wednesday on which he was killed.

For those living amid the gruesome war between Mugabe's National Liberation Army guerrillas and the security forces of the Rhodesian Government, death was the norm. However, some claimed to have heard singing and seen a white bird hover near John's corpse.
John and grandad shared a love of animals - grandad favoured the more traditional cats and his beloved Samoyed, Sasha and West Highland Terrier, Basil. And he was always struck by the extraordinary affinity John had with all animals.

Shortly after John's death, strange appearances of eagles and bees - two creatures most associated with John - occurred. Two brown eagles, never seen in urban areas, settled for hours outside the training centre where he'd lived.

One of John's devotees, Judy Joe, who dedicated her life to collecting second-hand clothes for his lepers, died from leukaemia, and a picture of John was found in her bedside drawer, underneath a bees' nest.

Similarly, Angus Shaw, a white Zimbabwean journalist with an anti-clerical column in Harare's main daily newspaper, decided to research the John Bradburne story and visited his old leper colony in Mutemwa. When he'd finished his interviews he returned to his car, and found it full of bees. Once he'd removed them he drove back to his office, where his terrified cleaner called to say his flat had been infested by a swarm of bees.

He told her to call a pest control company and when he settled down before his typewriter to relay his experiences, he noticed a cloud of bees trying to get in through his window.
He confessed that although the experience didn't convert him, he was shaken and the experience was a milestone in his life.

And even more curiously, a mourner who had placed a posy of three flowers on John's coffin noticed a small pool of blood on the floor beneath - it was reopened, but no traces of blood were found inside.

Although they did discover that he'd been placed in the coffin wearing a white shirt, despite the fact he had requested that in the event of his death, he should be buried wearing a Franciscan habit. Due to the mysterious blood droplets, his wish was granted. And a cross was erected where he had died. The memorial cost £1,000 and was paid for by an Englishman who said his sight had been restored by invoking John's name.

In 2001, the Franciscan priest Father Paschal Slevin presented a petition to the Archbishop of Harare for an inquiry into John's canonisation and said: "I have no doubt that John died a martyr in his determination to serve his friends, the lepers. If his martyrdom is accepted, his cause for sainthood could go quite quickly".

And the John Bradburne Society contributes money each year to look after the 26 lepers still requiring care in Mutemwa.
Up to 25,000 people annually attend a service in his memory at Mutemwa, and a year before grandad passed away, a mass commemorating the 30th anniversary of John's death was held in Westminster Abbey.

Grandad was thrilled and is no doubt toasting his old friend, now known as the African St Francis, with some of St Peter's finest red plonk on the 31st anniversary of his martyrdom.
Chin chin.