St Peter de
St Peter de Betancurt 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. Peter was a descendant of Juan de Betancurt, one of the Norman conquerors of the Canary Islands. His immediate family, 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, Peter learned to see God in everything around him.
When Peter 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 Peter 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.
Peter 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 Peter a job in a local textile factory. In 1653 Peter realized his ambition to enter the local Jesuit college in the hope of becoming a priest. He showed little aptitude for study which led him to withdraw. Here Providence once again helped him as he met Fr Manuel Lobo, S.J., who became his confessor.
Friar Fernando invited Peter to join the Franciscan Order as a lay brother, but Peter felt that God wanted him to remain in the world; and in 1655, he joined the Third Order of St Francis. From then on, Peter 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 generousity and deep humility in total abandonment to God's will. Inspired by the charity of Christ, he became everything to everyone. In 1658 Peter 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. Peter 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. 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.
He was joined by men and women, who became the Bethlehemite Brothers and the Bethlehemite 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 Bethlehemite Congregation was thus established. Peter died on 25 April 1667, at 41 years of age. Throughout his life, the Child of Bethlehem was the focus of Peter'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".