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Catholic Heroes… St. Peter Of St. Joseph De Betancur

April 18, 2019 saints No Comments


The Catholic Church is the largest provider of health care in the world. As of 2013, more than 40,000 hospitals, clinics, and homes for the elderly were run by the Catholic Church throughout the world. The pioneering work of many devout saints for centuries provided care for the sick and the homeless.
To care for the sick is one of the seven corporal works of mercy. Many servants of God have zealously cared for them, seeing a way of loving Christ by loving their neighbor. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is the most recent example of such Christian charity.
St. Zoticus built a hospital during the age of Constantine. Saints Cosmos and Damian were honored for their healing powers. St. Hildegard of Bingen, a doctor of the Church, St. Camillus de Lellis, and St. Aloysius Gonzaga placed care of the needy above their own needs.
A little-known saint of Guatemala also spent much of his life caring for the sick, homeless, and orphans. St. Peter of St. Joseph de Betancur was born on March 19, 1626 in Chasna de Vilaflor on one of the Canary Islands off the western coast of Morocco. He was one of five children born to Amador Betancur and Ana Gonzales Betancur. Peter had both regal and aboriginal heritage.
Peter’s family was poor and he began working when very young as a shepherd of the family’s small flock. They were a devout family, giving sound training to the children. As with most holy shepherds, Peter spent much time in prayer and meditation, nurturing his contemplative side.
Like St. Francis of Assisi, he saw God in the animals and plants of nature around him. In 1638, the family descended even deeper into poverty when a moneylender seized their small farm because of unpaid debts. The family was separated, with Mateo, Peter’s older brother, going to the New World, most likely Ecuador. Peter was indentured to the moneylender — he was twelve years old.
Once again Peter spent his days with animals, on the hillsides of Tenerife near Vilaflor. There was a cave in which Peter spent much of his time in prayer and probably took refuge with his animal charges during the pirate raids and the winter storms.
The moneylender freed Peter after eleven years of service in 1649. Peter quickly decided to follow his brother and set sail for Guatemala for two reasons. First, he hoped to obtain work in the government since an uncle worked as secretary to the governor general. Second, he yearned to bring the Christian message to the people of the New World.
After praying in the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, he set sail for Guatemala in 1650. Peter arrived penniless in Cuba and was left to find his way to Guatemala. Eventually he found work on a ship that landed in Honduras.
Peter disembarked and walked from there to Antigua, Guatemala, about 300 miles over mountains and rough terrain. When he finally arrived in Antigua, he survived by standing in the bread lines operated by the Franciscan Friars. Here he met Friar Fernando who became his lifelong friend and spiritual mentor.
Peter finally located his uncle, who managed to get him a job in a local textile factory. A few years later, he enrolled in the Jesuit College of San Borgia. However, his lack of education made studies difficult and he was unable to pass the Jesuit formation requirements. After struggling for three years, he left the Jesuit college.
Peter’s time at the college did bear fruit because of his with meeting Fr. Manuel Lobo, SJ, who became his confessor. Then Friar Fernando invited Peter to join the Franciscan order as a lay brother. Peter discerned that God wanted him to serve in the world, so he joined the Third Order of St. Francis in 1655 at the Franciscan Friary in Antigua. Upon making his vows, he took the name St. Peter of St. Joseph.
In addition to serving as sacristan in a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, he began teaching children reading and the catechism in a house he rented in the Antigua suburb of Calvary.
Peter also spent much time seeking out and helping those who were suffering. Like St. Peter Claver (1580-1654), he became an apostle to the African-American slaves, the natives of Guatemala who were cruelly treated, immigrants, and abandoned children. His heart, so full of God’s love, yearned to help all of God’s children. Trusting completely in God, his humility, surrender, and generosity were beyond compare. He yearned to be the servant of all and to bring all to the love of Christ.
Peter received a hut in 1658 which he immediately turned into a small hospital for the poor who had been discharged from the city hospital, but could not yet fend for themselves. He also reached out to hospitals, jails, the unemployed, and the youth. Near the hut, he erected an inn for priests.
He then received funds to expand his single home by purchasing surrounding houses. This was where Peter began building his hospital, willingly working with the masons to lay the bricks.
Peter named the hospital Our Lady of Bethlehem, showing his devotion to the Mother of God. In addition he founded a hostel for the homeless, a school for the poor and abandoned children, and an oratory. These well-run endeavors quickly won the support of both the bishop and the governor, motivating an abundance of contributions and support.
In all humility, he begged for alms for priests and set up endowments for the priests to offer Masses, especially for the Poor Souls in Purgatory. Furthermore, he arranged for Masses to be offered early in the morning so that the poor could attend. He erected small chapels in the poor sectors, using them for both prayer and education of the children.
While Peter had not set out to establish a new order, more tertiaries joined him in the service of the poor and destitute, leading him to develop a training program. Soon he wrote rules according to St. Augustine’s rules and he formed the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem, a Franciscan community.
A present custom in Guatemala began with Peter’s instigation. Every August 18 he called the children to his side to sing the Seven Joys of the Franciscan Rosary in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
On Thursdays Peter traversed the city, begging alms for prisoners and then visiting them in their cells, providing for their needs.
Peter’s ceaseless labors and penances began to wear on him. He passed away in Antigua on April 25, 1667 at the young age of 41. His feast is celebrated on April 24.
The Capuchin Friars received his body which was buried in their church. Peter’s remains now repose in the San Francisco Church in Antigua, Guatemala.
Dear St. Peter of St. Joseph, it is not brilliance and knowledge that save souls, but love and wisdom. Through your intercession, help us to obtain the special graces to lead more souls to the love and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ through the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Amen.

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