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'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.

Fr Martin Maria de Porres Ward, OFM Conv., is seen following his reception of the "Citizen of Andrelândia" award from the local government in Brazil in 1995. (Order of Friars Minor Conventual, Brazil)

A recent pastoral visit from a Catholic bishop in southeast Brazil featured a visit to the grave of Fr Martin Maria de Porres Ward, OFM Conv., an African-American priest now on the path to sainthood.

Bishop José Eudes Campos do Nascimento of São João del Rei was in the city of Andrelândia from October 19-22, including stops at various churches and the residence of the Conventual Franciscans, where Ward lived during the latter part of his more than forty-year ministry.

“The visit took on a special character when everyone went to the memorial and tomb of Friar Martinho Maria de Porres Ward, OFM. Conv., a Conventual friar with a reputation for holiness,” the diocese said in a report.

“Currently, the process for beatification and analysis of his heroic virtues is already forwarded to the Holy See, as expressed by Frei Robson Malafaia Barcelos, OFM Conv.”

Bispo realiza Visita Pastoral em Andrelândia/MG e convida toda a comunidade para a missão da Igreja | Diocese de São João del Rei
A Paróquia de Nossa Senhora do Porto da Eterna Salvação, na cidade de Andrelândia/MG, acolheu, em Visita Pastoral, o Excelentíssimo e Reverendíssimo Sr. Dom José Eudes Campos do Nascimento, Bispo da Diocese de São João del-Rei/MG. Esse momento privilegiado de proximidade do Bispo com o Povo de D…

Ward has been officially under consideration for sainthood since 2020, when Bishop Nascimento opened his canonization cause in the diocese. Ward died in 1999 of a heart attack at the age of 81, after serving in the Brazilian missions since his late 30s. 

Born in Boston, Ward converted to Catholicism as a teenager and entered the seminary in 1942, later joining the Conventual Franciscans in 1945 as their first African-American member. He was ordained in 1955 and, like many African-American Catholic priests of his era, volunteered to serve overseas. (Due to racism, stateside bishops were reticent to allow Black men to serve in their dioceses.)

Transferred to Andrelândia in 1985, Ward taught in the local seminary and also served as a spiritual director, parish priest, chaplain, and youth mentor. Following his death, he was immediately revered as a possible saint and his gravesite at the Conventuals’ seminary became a site of pilgrimage for local devotees.

At least two miracles have since been reported, which are now under investigation in Nascimento’s diocese. Local friars in Andrelândia have installed icons of Ward in their residences and composed a canonization prayer to be recited at Masses. The Conventuals’ generalate in Rome has also continued to promote Ward’s sanctity as American members of the order research his early life and ministry in the United States.

“We know that the bishops of Brazil have voted to give their full support to the cause,” Friar Douglas McMillan told BCM earlier this year.

“From what I understand, this is really a movement of the people. Fr. Julian [Zambanini], who is the vice postulator, is working with the friars in Brazil, as well as keeping our postulator for causes for the order informed of our progress.”

Ward is the seventh African American to be officially considered for sainthood in the Catholic Church, and the first to have served overseas for any extended length of time. He is also one of only two to have been born after the turn of the 20th century.

While there are currently eleven American saints in the Catholic Church, no Black American has ever been beatified or canonized. Ward’s chosen namesake, the Afro-Peruvian Dominican friar Martin de Porres, is currently the only Black Catholic saint in the history of the Western Hemisphere.

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

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