Saints for our Times: Peter de Betancur was devoted to those on society’s margins

By Mary Lou Gibson

Peter de Betancur was a poor shepherd of his family’s small flock in Villaflores on the island of Tenerife in the early 17th century. As a young boy, Peter learned to see God in everything around him. When he heard about the poor people of the “West Indies” (including present day Guatemala), he felt called to take the Christian message to them. 
So with little money and no formal education, he set sail for Guatemala hoping to connect with a relative who was working in government service there. Editor Bernard Bangley writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that he ran out of money in Cuba and had to work as a deck hand to pay for the remainder of his journey.
After landing in Honduras, Peter walked to Guatemala City. He was so poor that he had to stand in line for food each day at the Franciscan friary. This proved to be a good place for him because he met Father Fernando Espino there. The priest became Peter’s lifelong friend and helped him find work in a textile factory.
A short time later Peter started studies for the priesthood at the Jesuit College in San Borgia. But he later withdrew when this proved to be too difficult for him. Still drawn to the religious life, Peter sought help from his confessor, Father Manuel Lobo, who invited him to join the Franciscan Order as a lay brother.
Peter, however, felt that God wanted him to remain in the world and in 1655, he joined the Third Order of St. Francis. Matthew Bunson writes in “John Paul II’s Book of Saints” that he took the name of Peter of St. Joseph. He then started his work among the poor founding a hospital called “Our Lady of Bethlehem,” a hostel for the homeless, schools for the poor and abandoned children and an oratory. Throughout his life, the Child of Bethlehem was the focus of Peter’s spiritual meditation according to several biographers.
Bunson writes that Peter supported the hospital and his other charitable institutions by begging on the streets. He begged for alms to endow the Masses celebrated by poor priests and also encouraged Masses to be celebrated in the early morning hours so that the poor might attend.
He also started the practice of gathering children to sing the Seven Joys of the Franciscan Rosary on each Aug. 18 to honor the Blessed Mother, a custom that still continues in Guatemala.
Peter was joined by other tertiaries, but he had no wish to organize a community. He simply wanted to establish his hospital. Later he wrote up an adaptation of the Rule of St. Augustine for the community that included the active apostolate of working with the poor, the sick and the less fortunate. Sources say this led to the formation of the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem or Bethlemites.
He also ministered to prisoners and begged for them throughout the city and visited them in their cells. He is remembered for devoting his life to helping those who lived on the margins of society: lepers, prisoners, slaves and Indians.
According to Bunson, he is sometimes credited with introducing the Christmas Eve posada procession in which people representing Mary and Joseph seek a night’s lodging from their neighbors. The custom continues today throughout South America.
Peter died on April 25, 1667, in Guatemala City and is remembered as the “St. Francis of the Americas.” St. John Paul II beatified him in 1980 and in his remarks honored Peter’s humility, dedication and service of the blessed, all of which reflected Franciscan joy.
St. John Paul II canonized Peter on July 30, 2002, in Guatemala City. He is the first saint native to the Canary Islands, and is also considered the first saint of Guatemala and Central America. Peter’s tomb is in San Francisco Church in Antigua, Guatemala.