Son of a Conquistador
St. Martin was born in the Porres section of Lima, Peru on December 9, 1579. It had been less than fifty years since the Spanish conquistador Francis Pizarro had resolved to obtain his own wealth and power by conquering the Incan empire which was centered in modern day Peru. Sadly, the reign of the Spanish was brutal to their defeated opponents as the desire for gold and political control overruled any humanitarian concerns.
Martin's own lineage came from the Spanish conquest. His father and mother were not married. His father, Juan de Porres was a nobleman and a Spanish conquistador, and his mother Anna Velasquez was a free black woman from Panama. His sister Juana was born two years after Martin. Soon after her birth, their father left the family.
After Juan de Porres left, the family was reduced to poverty. In order to scratch out an existence, Anna began to take in laundry which allowed her to house, clothe, and feed her family. Despite the family's struggles to survive, Martin developed a kind heart toward the poor. Even at a young age, he would give to others in need out of the scarcity that was his.
When Martin was eight years old, his father returned to his life as he publicly claimed Martin and his sister. He provided money for the family and helped the two children to receive an education.
The Barber's Apprentice
Money was still very tight and Anna wanted to have her son apprenticed as soon as possible. Soon after turning twelve, the father arranged for young Martin to be the apprentice of a barber named Marcel de Rivero. Back then barbers did much more than give a shave and a haircut. In fact, barbers provided medical services, including dental work, and performed minor surgeries. The origin of the barber pole with its red and white stripes is related to the bloodletting and bandages that were used by barbers.
To the relief of his mother's financial burdens, Martin left home to become a full-time apprentice. The young man excelled at his services and overcame the prejudice of being a mulatto, as he was called, as customers soon began to request his services.
Throughout his young life, Martin had grown in his faith and relationship with Jesus. After leaving home, he continued to ground himself by spending his free time in church or in prayer at night in his rented room. The boy with a heart for the poor decided to keep himself for God rather than joining his peers in activities that were not pleasing to the Lord.
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Serving the Dominicans
His heart became set on joining the Dominicans, and the age of fifteen, he sought entrance. According to the civil law, as a mulatto, he was not allowed to take religious vows. Therefore, the superior allowed him to join as a servant. Martin accepted this as God's will, and he demonstrated his humility by always being willing to do the most menial of tasks required in Holy Rosary Priory. He served in the kitchen, by doing laundry, and providing general cleaning for the priory which housed 300 men.
As he had done throughout his life, he gave to the poor, and eventually was give the position of almoner which gave him more freedom to distribute to those in need. Martin did not fail to grow in his spiritual life. He made use of his access to the brothers and priests, and he spent as much time as he could praying before the Eucharist.
After eight years of faithful service, the superior decided to ignore the civil law and allowed Martin to make his vows as a Third-order Dominican. Although most of the men would treat Martin like any other Third Order Dominican, there were some who made it clear that they were not happy with the superior's decision. Martin did not engage with this prejudice, but instead focused on his relationship with Christ.
Through his efforts, the priory became a place which supported the many poor of the region by providing food and clothing distribution and health services in the infirmary. In addition, Martin had an orphanage and school built in order to help the homeless children of the city. His generosity attracted the poor and through his gentle persuasion, the Dominicans added these services to support the demand that grew for their help.
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A Lay Brother and a Healer
At the age of twenty-four, Martin took the vows of a Dominican lay brother. Although Martin preferred to accept the menial jobs, he was placed in charge of the infirmary where he served the ill for decades. The skills he had learned as a barber apprentice were applied in his care for those in the infirmary. He also displayed the most gentle bedside manner in keeping with his kind nature.
Through the gifts given to him by the Lord some of his cures were miraculous. In order to not draw attention to himself, Martin would try to use other objects to hide the miracle. For instance, Martin once told a woman who was suffering from a life-threatening hemorrhage to eat an apple. A few days later she was healthy not from the apple but through his prayers for her healing.
When he died at the age of fifty-nine, on November 3, 1639, Martin had become well-known throughout the region and thousands came to pay their respects and to collect relics by snipping small pieces of his habit. The faithful were not disappointed as Martin continued to intercede for them after his death and many miracles were reported.
One final healing story should be shared.
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Healing the Archbishop
At one point in time, Feliciano de la Vega Padilla had been selected as the next archbishop of Mexico. The bishop (for he had already been consecrated a bishop) was traveling to his new diocese when he became ill while staying at the residence of the bishop of Lima. The illness became very serious, and it appeared that he would die as the doctors had given up all hope of a cure.
However, Martin's reputation as a healer had become well-known, and the bishop's party requested that Martin come to the bishop as soon as possible. The Dominican superior ordered Martin to go immediately. In obedience, he went without any of his medical paraphernalia.
When he arrived, the bishop commanded that Martin touch him. There would be no pretense to hide the miraculous.
Martin, in his humility, replied to ask why the bishop would want a lay brother to touch him.
The bishop asked, "Did not your superior order you to do whatever I asked?"
"Yes, your excellency," answered Martin. And he stretched out his hand.
The bishop took hold of his hand and placed on his side. Immediately, the pain started to go away.
Martin humbly pulled back his hand. "Is that not enough?"
Instead, the bishop held Martin's hand more tightly and pressed it more firmly against his side until the fever and all pain and discomfort went away.
After having to so boldly show his gift of healing, Martin was embarrassed and when he returned to the priory he picked up a broom and began to sweep.
One of the Dominican priests who was not aware of what had happened, asked him if should not be at the bishop's residence.
Martin's reply was a paraphrase of Psalm 84:10. He had chosen to be the servant in the house of the Lord and that the cleaning he was doing right then was much greater than anything he could ever do at the residence of the bishop.
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Feast Day: November 3 (Memorial)
Patron of African-Americans
Patron against rats
Patron of barbers
Patron for social justice
Patron of hair stylists
Patron of the poor
Patron of public schools
Patron of race relations
Patron of racial harmony