Celia Cussen, a professor of Latin American history at the University of Chile in Santiago, recently presented “The Life and Legacy of Saint Martín of Porres: From Peruvian Healer to International Patron of Racial Justice” at Mount Saint Mary College.
The event was sponsored by the college’s Catholic and Dominican Institute (CDI). CDI promotes the Mount’s heritage of St. Dominic, advances the Dominican charism of study and service, provides a forum for discussion of contemporary ethical issues, and enhances Catholic and Jewish dialogue.
Martín of Porres (1579-1639) was the son of a Spaniard and a formerly enslaved woman from Panamá. He was disowned by his father and was unable to become a priest or a lay brother due to his African heritage. Instead, he joined the Dominican convent in Lima, Peru as a servant, taking on the duties of barber and nurse.
Nonetheless, Martín chose to profess vows in 1603.
Martín of Porres soon gained a reputation as an exceptional healer and man of great compassion, taking care of both his fellow man and a variety of sick and injured animals.
“Martín of Porres, then, was considered by his contemporaries to be a professional of the healing arts,” Cussen explained. Depictions of Martín would follow suit, with statues, stained-glass windows, and paintings featuring the future saint with his healing tools.
“His story of resilience and kindness resonated with Catholics everywhere during the mid-century campaigns for the rights of marginalized groups in the United States, Ireland, and elsewhere,” said Cussen.
This expanding devotion to Martín culminated with his canonization as a saint in 1962. Cussen noted that at the canonization ceremony, Pope John XXIII said Martín of Porres was “a man of charity, humility and obedience” who represented “the vindication of all the oppressed in all the world.”
Cussen is the author of Black Saint of the Americas: The Life and Afterlife of Martín de Porres (2014). More recently, she has written about the trade of enslaved Africans and their descendants in southern South America. By confronting the challenges of racialized hierarchies in the colonial world, these men and women attempted to attain their freedom.
Her newest research project looks at the emergence of a global devotion to Martín of Porres in the decades leading up to his canonization in 1962. She is particularly interested in the meanings his life and intercession took in local settings, including the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.