On November 3 each year the Church celebrates the memorial of St. Martin de Porres, patron of Friar Martin de Porres Maria Ward. Like his Dominican Brother, St. Martin De Porres, Friar Martin was born into the bi-racial family of William Henry Ward and Clara Irby on March 20, 1928 in Boston, MA as Matthias DeWitte Ward, the eldest of 13 children.
The family belonged to Methodist Church community, however at 17 after attending Mass with a friend, he decided to convert to Catholicism. A year later, he joyfully received his First Holy Communion. His family moved from Boston to Washington D.C. where according to the 1940 census 6 of the Ward children were living with their mother, Clara, and father, William, who was a butler for a private family.
Matthias attended the famous Afro-American Dunbar High School from 1935-39. Drawn to religious life, he entered the Salvatorians’ Seminary in St. Nazians, Wisconsin from 1942 to 1945 but left after suffering a medical complication. He returned to Brooklyn NY and in May 1945 applied for entrance to St. Francis Seminary on Staten Island of the Conventual Franciscans.
In a touching letter to the Vocation Director, Fr. Celestine Regnier, O.F.M.Conv. he reveals that he is “colored”. He wrote:
“I received your application blanks but before I have them filled out, Father, I wish to state that I am colored. I do not know if I mentioned this before, but you did not ask nationality. Now kind Father Celestine I would not want to cause an embarrassment on anyone’s part. Dear friend, if you think it not wise to accept me, I shall not in any way feel hurt, but perhaps, it might be your policy not to accept colored just now. Please write very soon to me concerning this father. I will return the application blanks if you cannot accept me. Now good Fr. Celestine, don’t feel hurt to tell me the truth please. God bless you dear Franciscans. I am Sincerely yours in St. Francis, Matthias Ward”
Fr. Celestine responded on June 8, 1945 indicating that “In the past we have not had the occasion to consider this important point of accepting colored applicants, since none were received.” He also mentioned that recently “we have been working in fields that might promise an open door to colored applicants.”
The Provincial Chapter of June 1945 voted to accept missions in Central and South America including Brazil.
Upon acceptance at the end of June 1945, he wrote to the Rector, Fr. Alexander Sheridan, O.F.M.Conv.: “My heart does rejoice for I am most happy now. Perhaps, I have a right to be more than happy for now I know that the Lord and His Dear Son Jesus Christ have bestowed an abundance of grace on me. I do wish to thank you Fr. Alexander as well as good Fr. Celestine. …. Someday I hoped to be garbed in the robe of Our Holy and Venerable Founder. I do feel assured that he rejoices now that a member of a forsaken race has now joined his family. Sincerely yours in St. Francis, Matthias Ward”
After two years of college at St. Francis Seminary, completed his studies of Philosophy, which he had begun at the Salvatorian Seminary in 1944, at St. Anthony-on-Hudson, Rensselaer, NY in 1949. His studies of Theology continued at St. Anthony-on-Hudson Major Seminary from 1950 to 1955 when he was ordained Priest by His Excellency William A. Scully in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, NY on June 4, 1955.
Fr Martin De Porres’ rejection by some of his family because of his conversion to Catholicism was eased by his acceptance by the friars and the families he met while studying in Rensselaer and helping out at various parishes in the area. Two of his sisters and their families attended his Priestly Ordination and reception.
One of these friends related how Friar Martin warned the mother of this family against allowing bi-racial unions: “I do recall that he was of bi-racial decent and spoke of his racial background to my mother. He shared with her how it was difficult growing up in a bi-racial family as they were neither accepted by the black or white community. I do recall that he encouraged her to try to discourage her children from entering into bi-racial unions. This was because of the pain he experienced growing up and wanted to spare us from the same hurt that he had in his childhood.” This surely was one of the reasons why he volunteered to go to the missions in Brazil where he could teach and take care of the needy.
He was described by his fellow friars as having “an engaging personality, who loved to laugh and get others to laugh. Living with him in community was a sheer delight.” The people he worked with saw Fr. Martin as a “holy, warm, loving person with a great sense of humor.”
A DEDICATED TEACHER
Soon after his ordination he volunteered for the missions in Brazil. In Brazil, Fr. Martin quickly distinguished himself as a warm, cheerful and passionate teacher. He involved students and kept them attentive with his interesting stories, his funny experiences, and many puns. At times he spoke of himself and the gaffes he made while learning Portuguese, his life experiences, his likes and preferences. But his playful approach did not keep him from expecting serious results from his students.
He was always willing to be corrected or learn something new. He especially enjoyed learning the ways and culture of the interior of Minas Gerais and Goiana where he referred to others as “compadres e comadres”, “amigo e amiga”, as “friends”, in affectionate terms.
As a priest he was Chaplain for the Sacramentine Sisters of Our Lady, both in the House of Mercy Hospital and in the College of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, spiritually assisting the sick, the students and the Sisters.
He lived at the disposal of the people of Andrelandia, especially the poor. Often he was asked to celebrate funeral, marriages, and to hear confessions. Friar Martin was seen a very cheerful, charitable and humble friar both in his religious community and by the people he served.
When he left the friary for celebrations in the countless chapels he served, he always carried with him in the pockets of his Franciscan habit something to offer everyone he met, giving them a medal, a crucifix, or simply a recycled card, coming from the United States.
A HOLY PRIEST AND EXAMPLE
In 1967, he was appointed Parish Vicar of the Parish of San Sebastián in Araruama, where he remained for five years. His Superior and first Custos, Fr. Otto John Fouser, in 1972 assigned Fr. Martin to the Friary at San Sebastião de Goiatuba, where he taught English and was Parochial Vicar, a position he held for 12 years.
In his pastoral ministry, Fr. Martin never made a point of assuming positions of honor and authority; he always preferred to be under the authority of Guardians (as Superiors of friary communities are called in the Franciscan Order) and Pastors. He exercised with modesty the function of Chaplain, Professor and Spiritual Director in the houses of formation of the Brazilian Custody and hospitals.
His witness of faith was evident in his living of the virtues of simplicity, joy, poverty and humility, especially with the poor. He was a faithful Franciscan Friar and Priest wih great devotion for the Eucharistic.
On May 26, 1977, still living in Goiatuba, Friar Martin requested the Custodial Definitory to join “ad perpetuum” the Immaculate Conception Custody which he had helped to erect with his significant presence since his arrival in Brazil.
In 1985, Fr. Martin was transferred from Goiatuba to Andrelândia as Spiritual Director and Professor of English and Latin at the “Seminary” which had been inaugurated in 1971.
Friar Martin was always an important part of the Vocation Encounters with men desiring to become Franciscans.
On these occasions, he would tell the story of his calling. According to those who heard him, he began by saying that he had to overcome numerous difficulties and trials. had consecrated his vocation and whom he fervently turned in times of trouble.
First of all he suffered prejudice because he was of Afro-American origin, stricken with infectious pulmonary disease, which almost made him give up his vocation. But all these difficulties were overcome by faith in Divine Providence and sublime devotion to the Immaculate Virgin, to whom he had consecrated his vocation and whom he fervently turned to in times of trouble.
In addition to the joy of his priestly ordination, he recounted the fact that he had been able to prepare and baptize his own father, William Henry Ward, on his deathbed. These simple gestures reveal how much Fr. Martin, the dear “compadre” of all had absorbed Franciscan Spirituality. He was a true follower of St. Francis of Assisi and during his life, he not only spread the greeting: “Peace and Good” but continually intoned: “Laus Deo Semper!” (Praise God Always!).
On March 28, 1995, by Municipal Decree 956/95, Friar Martin was awarded the title of “Citizen of Andrelândia”. The people showed their admiration for this simple, cheerful, kind and always available figure who faithfully served the People of God.
Of his 81 years of life and 51 years of religious profession, he lived much of his life in Andrelândia. During his time at the Seminary of Andrelândia, he lived a life of prayer, poverty, simplicity and humility. He was surrounded only with what was necessary, never seeking to accumulate superfluous goods. He was always generous towards the poor, with whom he often shared what little he had.In addition to his love for the Eucharistic Christ, he had great devotion to the Most Holy Virgin.
“Even in the corridors of the Seminary, he never passed before the image of the Blessed Virgin without reverently bowing. This in our eyes as postulants, sometimes seemed a bit excessive but over time we learned to value it as a gesture of love and veneration for Our Lady.”
FAITHFUL TO THE END AS PRIEST,
On June 20, 1999, even though he was not feeling well, he still celebrated Sunday Mass in the Church of the Rosary in Andrelândia. During the celebration, Friar Martin chest pains. Even though he has pains characteristic of a heart attack, after stopping for a moment to drink some water, he continued and concluded the celebration of Mass.
Immediately after the celebration, he was rushed to the Santa Casa de Misericórdia (Holy House of Mercy Hospital) where he received first aid. But given the gravity of his condition and the little medical assistance available, his Superiors decided, even against his will, to transfer him to a hospital in the Capital, Rio de Janeiro.
On June 21, Friar Martin was taken by his Provincial Custos, Fr. Valdomiro Soares Machado and the Custodial Secretary, Fr. Ariel Ribeiro da Costa, in a special ambulance to the Hospital of the Venerable Order of the Third Order of St. Francis of Penitence (Hospital da Venerável Ordem 3ª de São Francisco da Penitencia).
Friar Martin sensed the end of his earthly pilgrimage and obediently bowed for the last time to the will of his Superior, an experienced a serious heart attack during the four and a half hour journey to Rio de Janeiro.
The next day, June 22 at 6:30 pm after receiving the Sacraments of the Anointing of the Sick and the Holy Eucharist, Friar Martin welcomed Sister Death preparing himself for the great encounter with “His God and His All.”
At his death, once again, the city of Andrelândia showed him veneration, affection and gratitude, paying tribute to him and praising God for his goodness and holiness.
Frei Valdomiro Soares Machado, the Provincial Custos of that time, who accompanied Friar Martin in his last moments, wrote in the Custodial Newsletter addressed to the friars on the occasion of his death:
“Friar Martin de Porres Ward died on June 22, 1999, in Rio de Janeiro where he was transferred the day before to be treated for a serious heart attack.
Friar Martin, ‘a good man’, ‘a man of God’, ‘a man of the people’, ‘a true Franciscan’, ‘a community man’ — these are the sentiments I heard from his confreres in these last days. Andrelândia will no longer be the same; the Seminary will no longer be the same, because his rocking chair will be empty in front of the television. They will miss the jokes, the playful puns, the scares and the happy laughter. We will miss the teacher, the confessor, the peacemaker … But, we have an intercessor in Heaven.”
Fr. Valdomiro expressed well the sentiments of all the friars and the people who had known and lived with Friar Martin near the end of his life.
Friar Martin, our “compadre”, is buried in the place that in life he chose and prepared in the small cemetery of the São Francisco de Assis Seminary in Andrelândia. He is remembered for his love of God and community, especially of the poor and the most needy of Andrelândia.
“The feeling that led us to the seminary of Andrelândia on this day, to express our affection and pray for him, is the certainty that the love that united us in this life continues to unite us with God. He is ‘God of the Living, not the Dead’! (Mk 12:27)”.
The Franciscan Friars Conventual invite you to support the Cause of Fr. Martin Maria de Porres Ward towards sainthood by your prayers and support.
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