Martin was born December 9, 1579, in Lima, Peru, as the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and a young, black former slave born in Panama. He grew up in poverty and, at age 12, his mother apprenticed him to a barber-surgeon. He learned how to cut hair and also how to draw blood (a standard medical treatment then), care for wounds, and prepare and administer medicines.
At age 15, Martin applied to the Dominicans to be a “lay helper,” not feeling himself worthy to be a religious brother. After nine years, the example of his prayer, penance, charity and humility led the community to request him to make full religious profession. Many of his nights were spent in prayer and penitential practices; his days were filled with nursing the sick and caring for the poor. It was particularly impressive that he treated all people regardless of their color, race or status.
He was instrumental in founding an orphanage, taking care of slaves brought from Africa, and managing the daily alms of the priory with practicality as well as generosity. He became the procurator for both priory and city, whether it was a matter of “blankets, shirts, candles, candy, miracles or prayers!” When his priory was in debt, he said, “I am only a poor mulatto. Sell me. I am the property of the order. Sell me.”
Among the many miracles attributed to him were those of levitation, bilocation, miraculous knowledge, instantaneous cures and an ability to communicate with animals. St. Martin is often depicted as a young mulatto priest with a broom, since he considered all work to be sacred no matter matter how menial. He is also often shown with the dog, the cat and the mouse, eating in peace from the same dish.
He died in Lima, Peru, on November 3, 1639. On his canonization in 6 May in 1962, Pope John XXIII remarked of him:
"He forgave the bitterest injuries, convinced that he deserved much severer punishments on account of his own sins. He tried with all his might to redeem the guilty; lovingly he comforted the sick; he provided food, clothing and medicine for the poor; he helped, as best he could, farm labourers and Negroes, as well as mulattoes, who were looked upon at that time as akin to slaves: thus he deserved to be called by the name the people gave him: 'Martin of Charity.'"