Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

The Last Shall Be First

by Rev. Rawley Myers, Ph.D.


A short biography of St. Martin de Porres who lived a life devoted to serving the poorest of the poor.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, November 2009

St. Martin de Porres' kindness was legendary. He was a Dominican brother constantly helping the poor. His zeal for assisting the needy put to shame the other members of the house.

One day the superior told him not to bring any more poor, sick people to the hospice because it was full. But that afternoon, out on his missions of mercy, he came upon an old man in a ditch who was very ill. Martin picked him up and carried him to the house, put him in his own bed, and slept on the floor. The superior heard about this and scolded him about his disobedience. Martin said, "I always thought charity was more important than obedience."

Martin de Porres lived in Lima, Peru in the early days of that country. His father was a Spanish knight and his mother a black woman. The father soon deserted them. They were very poor. He and his mother and sister lived in a tiny cottage with dirt floors. They slept on the floor. Sometimes when his mother sent him to the market to bring back the little food they could afford, Martin, seeing a poor man, gave the food to him. His mother was beside herself with anger.

As a boy, Martin could not pass a church without going in to visit Jesus.

When he was ten he became an apprentice to a barber to learn the trade. In those days the barber was also the doctor. Martin learned so quickly that many people came to him instead of the man in charge.

After work, Martin went to poor families to help the sick, bringing them healing.

In time he wanted to be a Dominican but they were unsure of him. They were all white Spanish friars, without any blacks. In fact, the thinking of that time was that blacks were inferior. Martin, however, persisted and in time they took him as a Dominican lay brother. He was given all the lowest tasks of the house—scrubbing floors, cleaning rooms, acting as the doorkeeper. He did all these things gladly with love and cheerfulness, and even did servant work that was not assigned to him.

Martin never spoke of his gifts, but soon they found out that he was most wonderful with the sick. He was assigned to the infirmary. There were a number of old crotchety priests there. It was impossible to please them. He took all this with a cheerful smile. He enjoyed working with them.

Also Martin was given permission to go outside the house to assist the poor. They loved him. He seemed to be everywhere. Sometimes they did not call him but suddenly he was there beside their cots, bringing comfort. When he entered a poor little cottage, he brought brightness. It was like the sun giving light and warmth. He told them about Jesus. People praised him but he hardly heard it, he was too busy healing bodies and souls.

Jesus said, "I will give you life and life to the fullest." Martin was fully alive and always pleasant. How different he was from the dull, bored materialists. Martin had nothing, but he loved life. Every day brought new ways to help the needy. What could be more soul-satisfying? To be Christ's voice and hands to the helpless gave him inner peace and joy. He knew well that we are our brothers' keepers. No man is an island.

More than once when Martin wanted to take food to the poor the cook said there was nothing left. He asked him to look in the pot again, and miraculously there was more food.

When people mistreated him he prayed for them.

All his life was a prayer of thanksgiving. He said, "God has been so generous in his kindness to me, I must be kind to others."

Like St. Dominic, Martin had a great devotion to the Blessed Mother. She helped him so often, he could not count the times. Many came to beg his prayers and ask his advice, including many priests and even the archbishop of Mexico.

All his life he felt sorry for people with hatred in their hearts; they hurt themselves most of all.

When a ship of new black slaves came from Africa, Martin was the first there to comfort the poor, miserable, frightened creatures in chains. He was so selfless that though they could not understand his words, they knew he loved them. He spoke to their hearts from his heart.

There was a day the house was without funds. The superior decided to take down a beautiful, expensive painting and sell it in the market for whatever he could get for it. Martin saw him leaving and asked why. The superior told him. Martin said he would go to a rich home and work as a servant and the money he earned would go the house; he told the superior not to sell the beautiful religious painting. The superior said he would not make Martin a servant, but he would not sell the painting. He took it back into the house. The next day unexpected money arrived in the mail.

Someone saw Martin praying before a crucifix, and the life-size figure of Christ came to life. Jesus extended his nail-pierced hand to Martin to kiss. He did so with devotion beyond words. Another said he saw him praying with two angels accompanying him.

As infirmarian at the Dominican house, Martin had an old priest brought to him. Martin was warned that he had a bad temper. He went to him. The old priest said, "Don't come near me. Go out and sweep the floors where you belong." Martin would not leave him. At last the old man said, "I have been told they are going to cut off my leg."

"No," Martin said. "They won't do that. Let me look at it."

The grumpy priest didn't want to, but he had nothing to lose. Martin washed the leg and applied a salve. The old man was up walking the next day.

Another time Martin was called outside. A boy had been stabbed. When the boy's family saw him, they did not want someone so young. But the boy was bleeding profusely and was dying. They let Martin in. He took some white powder from a jar. He washed the wound and put on the medicine, wrapping it in a clean cloth. Soon the boy was well on the way to recovery.

When, after a lifetime of service, Martin fell ill, a heartbroken young father wept beside his bed. "Do not weep," Martin said. "This is joy. It is God's will I die now. I will help you more in heaven than here."

He suffered increasingly but did not cry out. On the last day he said that he saw the Blessed Mother at his side and she was consoling him. Jesus had sent his mother to comfort Martin, who had comforted so many.

The superior started to summon the people in the house to come and pray for him. Martin asked him not to disturb his brothers. The superior sent for them. They gave him a crucifix, which he covered with kisses. They began to pray and in the midst of their prayers, he quietly slipped away to heaven. He was sixty years old. It was 1639.

Rev. Rawley Myers, Ph.D. is editor of Star magazine for the sick and elderly, chaplain at St. Elizabeth's Convent in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and auxiliary chaplain at Ft. Carson Hospital. He is the author of twelve books and many pamphlets and articles. Father Myers is a regular contributor to HPR.

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