Skip to content

Conventuals mark 25th death anniversary of Servant of God Martin Maria de Porres Ward

The latest update from the Conventual Franciscans, who are investigating the life of the latest African-American Catholic on the path to sainthood.

Fr Martin de Porres Ward, OFM Conv., the seventh African-American Catholic on the path to sainthood, in an undated photo. (Expanded with Canva)

June 22 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Servant of God Martin Maria de Porres Ward, a Boston-born Conventual Franciscan friar not yet well known as the seventh African-American Catholic candidate for sainthood. 

Since 2018, when the cause of Servant of God Thea Bowman was introduced, U.S. Catholics have gradually come to refer to the “saintly six” on the road to canonization. Bowman’s fellow Franciscan, however, was officially added to the Vatican’s roster in 2020, when the Bishop of São João del Rei in Brazil opened Ward’s cause following the spread of a local cult of devotion during the prior two decades. Ward served in the country for his entire ministerial career—having been ordained in America during Jim Crow and the long period of sustained anti-Black restrictions in the Catholic priesthood and religious life stateside.

Since Ward’s death in 1999 and the spread of his story and veneration overseas, the U.S. Conventual friars have commenced efforts to learn more about his life in America. This work is intended to help his sainthood cause along, which requires an extensive biography to be created and approved by Church officials in Rome.

An update shared this month by an African-American friar involved in the process explains more details of the work.

“Two years ago, the provincial chapter of the Province of Our Lady of the Angels, along with the Brazilian Custody of the Immaculate Conception, where he lived, ministered, and died, passed a resolution in support of the cause,” said Br Douglas McMillan, OFM Conv, who is part of the American team researching Ward’s life.

“Two historical commissions were formed to begin the process of writing the official positio about him. The commission in the United States, composed of a vice-postulator and two friars, is working on gathering material about his early life, his formation as a friar, to his ordination on June 4, 1955. The Brazilian Commission, composed of a vice-postulator and three Brazilian friars, will cover his time in Brazil until his death on June 22, 1999.”

‘Frei Martinho’, Brazil’s Black American saint-to-be, feted during bishop’s visit
Fr Martin Maria de Porres Ward, a Boston-born Conventual Franciscan who served in Brazil, has been under consideration for sainthood since 2020.

Born Matthias DeWitte Ward in 1918, Martin Maria was the son of a Protestant interracial couple in the Charlestown neighborhood. He later moved with his family to the Washington area, where he attended high school. He converted to Catholicism there as a teenager and attended St. Augustine, known as the mother church of Black Catholics in the nation’s capital.

He initially joined religious life with the Salvatorians in 1942 before a medical condition necessitated his withdrawal. He returned to the seminary in 1945 with the Conventuals, who assured him he could find an assignment as a Black priest—and the first African American in their order. (Many or most American bishops at the time would not accept a Black man, secular or religious, as a minister in their dioceses.)

Ward was ordained ten years later in Albany, New York, and promptly volunteered for his order’s overseas missions in Brazil, where he excelled as a teacher, spiritual director, pastor, confessor, vocations director, and chaplain. He was also known for his characteristic Franciscan care for the environment.

“We thank Jesus for the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, through whom Fr Ward was inspired to teach the love of nature,” wrote Ward’s former student Carlos Junior de Magalhães in 2023.

“So many rivers have been preserved, so many wild animals have not been led to extinction, so many forests could breathe by knowing São Francisco through the mouth of Santo Martinho, of Santo Ward.”

I believe Fr Martin Maria de Porres Ward, OFM Conv. should be a saint. Here’s why.
A Brazilian former seminarian who studied under an African-American priest now considered for canonization explains why he thinks his former mentor is worthy of the altars.

After more than four decades of service in Brazil, Ward was christened a “Citizen of Andrelândia” in 1995, an honor named after the municipality in Southeast Brazil where he worked for most of his priesthood. Four years later, Ward suffered a series of heart attacks and died at the age of 81.

His gravesite in Andrelândia has since become a place of pilgrimage, and various alleged miracles have been reported, potentially as a result of his intercession. Though he is not yet at the sainthood stage where possible miracles are being officially considered, he could be declared “Venerable” upon completion and Vatican approval of his official biography.

For now, devotees near and far are asked to request his intercession with an official prayer from the organizers of his cause, which has the backing of the Conventual Friars’ global leadership in Rome. The order’s members in Brazil are known to include the prayer at each Mass. They also celebrate a special Mass in his honor at their hermitage in Andrelândia each month, before processing to his tomb for a blessing ceremony.

On Saturday, the community will celebrate their annual feast day Mass celebrating his life and legacy, which continues to inspire his confreres, friends, and those who have merely learned of him as a holy priest from America who gave his life to Brazil.

Prayer for Beatification and Canonization of Fr. Martin Maria de Porres Ward, OFM Conv.
O Glorious Most high God, who deign to glorify in heaven
the souls of those who served and glorified You on earth,
hear our prayers for [petitions in silence]
and according to the design of Your Divine Providence,
Deign to glorify your Servant Martin Maria de Porres,
who by his love desired to offer his life
for the education and service
of the youth, the poor and the sick,
that like our ‘compadre’ we too may progress
in the service of the most needy.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

Want to support the work of BCM? You have options.

a.) click to give (fee-free) on Zeffy

b.) click to give on Facebook