Born in 1579 in Lima, Peru, St. Martin de Porres was the illegitimate son of a Spanish knight and a freed Panamanian woman. Abandoned by his father, ridiculed as a “half-breed” for his dark complexion, and raised in poverty, Martin identified with society’s poor outcasts as his devotion grew.
As the descendent of an African/Native American, under Peruvian law, Martin was ineligible to become a full member of a religious order. However, his charity, penance and humility won through, and eventually he took his vows as a member of the Third Order of St. Dominic.
As a lay brother assigned to the infirmary, he spent years nursing the sick, caring for the poor, and ministering to all people, regardless of race or social status. He was also instrumental in founding an orphanage, and he helped care for African slaves. He even fund-raised thousands of dollars for dowries for poor girls so they could marry or enter a convent.
During his duties in the kitchen, laundry, and infirmary, Martin reportedly experienced supernatural gifts from God in the forms of levitation, bilocation, miraculous knowledge, and spontaneous cures. His rapport with all creatures great and small—even mice and rats—informed his love of animals and his vegetarianism.
Upon his death in 1639, on Nov. 3 (his feast day), Martin’s body was displayed. Each person who paid their respects snipped a piece of his habit to keep as a relic. Legend has it that three habits were taken from his body. As the patron of social justice, Martin was beatified in 1837 and canonized on May 6, 1962.
Father Scott Donahue is the president of Mercy Home for Boys and Girls.