Feast Day : April 25
Also known as: Pedro de Betancourt
Pedro Betancur may have been a descendant of Juan de Betancourt, who conquered the Canary Islands for Spain early in the 16th century. If so, the family had suffered a lowering of social and economic status by the time Pedro was born in Villaflora, on the island of Tenerife, on March 21, 1626. They were quite poor. Pedro had a strong religious sense and zeal, which led him to want to evangelize Japan. In 1646, at the age of 20, he left his homeland for Cuba, going on to Guatemala (then the capital of New Spain) four years later. As he entered Guatemala City on February 18, 1651, the earth shook, a portent of great things to come. He enrolled in a Jesuit college, but his lessons proved too difficult for him to master and he dropped out after three years, giving up his dream of going to Japan. He turned instead to the Franciscans, joining the Secular Franciscan Order in 1655, and devoted the rest of his life to work in Guatemala. From his arrival in Guatemala City, Pedro had been struck by the great extremes of wealth and poverty. For a while he held the position of sacristan in a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, where he prayed for the poor on his knees before images of the Virgin, St. Joseph and the Child Jesus. He rented a house and taught reading and catechism to poor children. In 1658, with the help of benefactors, he converted this house into a hospital. Later, benefactors provided for the purchase of other houses in the area and a proper hospital was built, Pedro himself working alongside the masons. Upon its completion, the hospital was thoroughly equipped and stocked, and placed under the patronage of Our Lady of Bethlehem. Pedro was concerned not only with the poor but also with all social and economic classes. Every Thursday he collected alms for prisoners and visited them in their cells. Souls in purgatory also received his attention. He had two chapels built at the principal gates to the city, where he performed Masses to celebrate the souls of the deceased. At night he walked through the streets ringing a bell, asking people to pray for them as well. About 1665 he sent one of his religious brothers to Spain to solicit the king’s approbation of his congregation’s work. The favor was granted, but unfortunately, Pedro had died before the messenger returned. Nor did he live to see the confirmation of the congregation and its constitution by Pope Clement X (r. 1670–76) in 1673. Pedro is credited with originating Christmas-eve processions (called posadas) in which people representing Joseph and Mary seek lodgings. The practice caught on, and soon spread to Mexico and other Central American countries. Pedro died on April 15, 1667, in Guatemala City. At the request of the Capuchin Fathers he was buried in their church where his relics are venerated to this day. Legend has it that petitioners need only tap gently on his stone tomb to have their prayers answered. Many early petitioners afterward left stone tablets scratched with thank-you notes.