Saint of the Day – 25 April – Saint Pedro de San Jose de Betancur OFB (1626-1667) called “St Francis of Assisi of the Americas” and “Apostle of Guatemala,” Religious Tertiary of the Franciscan Order and Founder of the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem “the Bethlemites” – which belongs to the Franciscan community,” Missionary, Apostle of Mercy, of the sick, of the poor, prisoners, Catechist – born as Pedro de Betancur y Gonzáles, on 16 May 1619 at Villaflores, Tenerife Island, Canary Islands, Spain and died on 25 April 1667 at Guatemala City, Guatemala of natural causes, just before his 48th birthday. Patronages – Canary Islands, Guatemala, Central America, Catechists of Guatemala, Honorary Mayor of Municipalities in the south of Tenerife and Honorary Mayor of Antigua Guatemala, of the homeless. Although his Feast is today, it is sometimes moved to the 24 April to accommodate the Feast of St Mark on the 25th. In Tenerife his memory is celebrated on 29 June. He is also known under the names of Santo Hermano Pedro ( Saint Brother Peter ) and San Pedro de Vilaflor ( Saint Peter of Vilaflor ) Peter de Betancurt.
St Pedro de Betancur was born on 19 March 1626 at Chasna de Vilaflor on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. He died on 25 April 1667 in Guatemala City, Guatemala. His life, marked by a heroic holiness, is a shining testimony of faithfulness to the Gospel. Pedro was a descendant of Juan de Betancurt, one of the Norman conquerors of the Canary Islands. His immediate family, he was one of the five children, however, was very poor and he started work as the shepherd of the small family flock. His parents raised him soundly in the faith and his contact with nature nurtured his deeply contemplative soul. As a young boy, Pedro learned to see God in everything around him.
When Pedro heard about the miserable living conditions of the people of the “West Indies” (present-day America), he felt called to take the Christian message to this land. In 1650 when he was 23 years old, he left for Guatemala where a relative had already gone to become secretary of the Governor General. His funds ran out in Havana so Pedro had to pay for his passage from that point, by working on a ship which docked at Honduras from where he walked to Guatemala City.
Pedro was now so poor that he had to stand in line for his daily bread at the Franciscan friary and it was here, that he met Friar Fernando Espino, a famous missionary, who befriended him and remained his lifelong counsellor. He found Pedro a job in a local textile factory. In 1653 Pedro realised his ambition to enter the local Jesuit college in the hope of becoming a priest. He showed little aptitude for study, however, which led him to withdraw. Here Providence once again helped him as he met Fr Manuel Lobo, SJ, who became his confessor. After holding the position of Sacristan for a while in a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, he rented a house in a suburb of the city called Calvary and there taught reading and Catechism to poor children.
Friar Fernando invited Pedro to join the Franciscan Order as a lay brother but Pedro felt that God wanted him to remain in the world and in 1655, he joined the Third Order of St Francis. From then on, Pedro dedicated his time to alleviating the sufferings of the less fortunate in the midst of inexpressible toil and difficulty. He became the Apostle to African-American slaves, the Indios subjected to inhuman labour, the emigrants and abandoned children, with ever-expanding generosity and deep humility, in total abandonment to God’s will. Inspired by the charity of Christ, he became everything to everyone . In 1658 Pedro was given a hut which he converted into a hospital for the poor who had been discharged from the city hospital but still needed to convalesce.
It was called “Our Lady of Bethlehem.” He also founded a hostel for the homeless, a school for poor and abandoned children and an oratory. Pedro received help for these foundations from both the civil and religious authorities. He begged for alms to endow the Masses celebrated by poor priests and also endowed Masses, to be celebrated in the early hours, so that the poor might not miss Mass.
He had small chapels erected in the poor sectors, where instruction was also given to children. Prisoners also excited Pedro’s compassion. Every Thursday he begged for them through the city and visited them in their cells. Every year, on 18 August, he would gather the children and sing the Seven Joys of the Franciscan Rosary in honour of the Blessed Mother, a custom still continued today in Guatemala. The neglected souls in purgatory were also the objects of his solicitude. He would travel the streets at night, ringing a bell and recommending these souls to be prayed for.
He was joined by men and women, who became the Bethlemite Brothers and the Bethlemite Sisters and formulated a Rule that included the active apostolate of working with the poor, the sick and the less fortunate, based on a life rich in prayer, fasting and penance. The Bethlemite Congregation was thus established.
Pedro died on 25 April 1667, at 47 years of age exhausted by labour and penance. At the request of the Capuchin Friars he was buried in their church in Antigua, Guatemala, where, ever since, his remains are held in veneration.
Throughout his life, the Child of Bethlehem was the focus of Pedro’s spiritual meditation. He was always able to see in the poor the face of “the Child Jesus,” and to serve them devoutly. He is known as the “St Francis of the Americas.” … Vatican.va
Pedro is considered the great evangelist of the Guatemala. His dedication to the social problems of his time are comparable to that effected, centuries later, by St Mother Teresa in Calcutta, serving the most vulnerable and needy.
He is credited with introducing to the Americas, the Christmas Eve Novena ‘posadas’ procession, in which people representing Mary and Joseph, seek a night’s lodging from their neighbours. The custom soon spread to Mexico and other Central American countries.
Pedro was known to work miracles also, including healing the sick. Among other facets of his life, his defence of the Immaculate Conception stands out – two centuries before the declaration of the Dogma. His great devotion to prayer for the Souls in Purgatory and the penance he practised, for the sins of the world.
St Pedro de Betancur was distinguished by the humble spirit and austere life with which he practised mercy. He was Beatified on 22 June 1980, at St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City by St Pope John Paul II and Canonised on 30 July 2002, in Guatemala City, Guatemala by St Pope John Paul II.
During his homily at the Canonisation St John Paul called Pedro the “first Tenerifean and Guatemalan saint” and he “… personifies “a heritage which must not be lost; we should always be thankful for it and we should renew our resolve to imitate it”
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