Knights of St. Peter Claver and Black History Month

Last Fall, Father Jim Martin wrote about Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez, a Jesuit brother who met young Peter Claver and encouraged him to work overseas in "the missions," which at that time included ministering to people from Africa who had been imprisoned by the slave trade. Several months ago a friend of mine returned from a trip to Cartegna, Columbia and gave me an evocative and inspiring booklet on the life of St. Peter Claver. In view of this being Black History Month, I thought excerpts from "Peter Claver: Human Rights Pioneer" by Angel Valtierra, SJ, would be of interest to readers, as well as information about the flourishing organization Knights of St. Peter Claver, the largest African-American lay organization in the American Church. Valtierra writes about the saint himself:

We are in the 17th Century. The place could be New Orleans, Veracruz, Martinica, Portobello, La Habana, or Cartegna. We are at the public market: the slaves 'plaza' woth its huge doors and narrow entrances, its stone columns with holes to tie the chains. The new merchandise has arrived from Africa; a long row of human beings wait: they are the negro slaves. 'Pieces from Indias' as they were called. Their sad eyes still show the glance of terror. This is not a tale, but a true living history...Between the 16th and 19th centuries more than 14 million black people were brought to the Americas against their will. Hunted down and captured like animals in Africa, these negroes were chained together and herded onto ships that carried them to the New World.


On March 19, 1616 Peter Claver was ordained a priest at Cartagena's Cathedral. Sandoval's book became his guide. On an ordinary paper the Saint wrote with a firm hand the immortal sentence that would enter history: 'Petrus Claver, aethiopum semper servus. Pedro Clver esclavo de los esclavos negroes para siempre.' It was not an empty sentence. It was the fullness of sacrifice, the total surrender of a life to the cause of the less favored. A slave of slaves for 40 years he would never live for himself. He would forget everything in life that is brilliant in order to enter into everything in life that is painful. Nobody loved so much this enslaved race.

Only a fragment of a letter from March 31, 1617 is preserved. 'Yesterday the Negroes coming from Rios de Guinea landed from a large ship. We got there bringing oranges, lemons, and tobacco. We approached the barracks, the sick, many of them lying down on the damp floor. We put blankets trying to smooth the floor, and then we took the sick in our arms.' Captain Barahonda testified: 'And the Negroes loved him too. Everytime they saw him they would go to kiss his hand and to kneel in his presence.'...Claver without being able to talk to them in their language embraced them: that was a common language. In the first place, he approached the dying children...'I baptize you.' Then he came to the sick. Sometimes a drink of 'aguardiente' would make them feel better.

'Notably, his presence seemed to multiply. All his assistants and companions were exhausted much before he was tired. Often he had to take in one day two teams of companions during his visits. Very often too, when getting home after an exhausting work day, he found someone waiting for him and he would say: 'You have com precisely on time. Right now I have nothing to do.' When the night came, he used to tell the janitor: 'If someone comes for me during the night, please tell me; the other Fathers need to rest but I, who do very little, am sleeping too much.'

The Knights of St. Peter Claver were founded November 7, 1909 in Mobile, Alabama as an organization to allow men of color membership in a Catholic fraternal society. In the 1930s, divisions for sons and daughters of members were added, and in 1980 the Ladies of Magisterial grace were founded. The group's Web site notes that "with strong support of the Church throughout the years, we now have 700 subordinate units through the USA and a unit in Columbia, South America." There are 18,000 Catholic members and all Catholics are welcome to join. The KPC Chaplain is Bishop Martin P. Holley, D.D., V.G., Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington. The Knights are a major contributor to the United Negro College Fund and they recently completed a national Environmental Health and Justice Literary Project.

I think it's also important to note that the Knights have made a concerted effort to reach out to young people. If you scroll down this issue of The Claverite you will see examples of their young people's activities as well as learn more about what this fine organization—founded in honor of a Jesuit saint from the 16th Century—is accomplishing in 21st Century America.

William Van Ornum


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we vnornm
7 years 10 months ago

I'm embarrassed to say I didn't know about St. Peter Calver until reading Father Jim's article and having my friend give me the beautiful booklet. Lots to learn......amdg, bvo
Jack Fowler
7 years 10 months ago
Worth noting also for BHM, if it hasn't already, is the Healy family, the men of which graduated from The College of the Holy Cross (my alma mater) in the mid 1800s. Three became priests, including James, the first black priest in the US, and America's first black bishop (of Portland, Maine).  His brother, Patrick, became the President of Georgetown. Three of the Healy girls became nuns. They were considered mixed race - the father was a white Irish immigrant and the mother a mulatto slave and his common-law wife. The children were born into slavery in Georgia, but their father, a successful farmer, sent them north to be educated. And to become great Americans and Catholic leaders.
Alyssa Cariani
7 years 10 months ago
What a beautiful story! I can honestly say I had no idea that there were people who attempted to care for the African slaves in the earlier years.
I wonder if St. Peter Claver experienced any opposition from those who controlled the slave market. As I am fully aware of how violent they were towards the slaves, I'm sure they would react similarly to individuals would could potentially hurt their market. Was this the case for Peter Claver?
Also, it is interesting that the Knighthood of St. Peter Claver was established in Mobile, Alabama of all places. I am also curious as to how it was affected by the Civil Rights Movement in the 60's. It is wonderful that African Americans had the ability to find a place in an established religion during a time of such great need. It is also amazing that they are still around today.
Kayna Pfeiffer
7 years 10 months ago
This was a very uplifting story. It is very commendable to see the clergy of the Church reaching out to those less fortunate, something they do on a daily basis. St. Peter Claver went above and beyond and even made his existence out of this. He was there when the slaves needed him the most. St. Claver saw people for who they were and not for the color of their skin or the chains that tied them to the ground. His message should be carried on to all of us. We should treat others how we want to be treated. We should work on bringing people together and not dividing ourselves from each other.  

Establishing a Knighthood in Alabama was exactly what African Americans needed after the end of the Civil War. They needed a safe haven where they could congregate and share their thoughts without being persecuted or discriminated against by many people in the South. It's great to see that they are open to all who want to join their knighthood and that they can be the bigger people in the sense that they do not discriminate even though their ancestors were discriminated against.
we vnornm
7 years 10 months ago

Many thanks for bringing in the heritage of the College of the Holy Cross!

Alyssa, perhaps one of the Knights will be reading and can give more info.

amdg, bill
Janice Feng
7 years 10 months ago
It is this kind of selfless generosity that makes you remember there are still those who are so willing to give even in our society that is obsessed with gain and self-interest. I am curious along with Alyssa as to if Peter Calver was faced with opposition when he went on these missions with his companions. His part in the church would probably make what he was doing more acceptable but there still would have been many that did not agree with his actions. He was treating the African slaves with compassion which is certainly not what others at the time were interested or focused on.
we vnornm
7 years 10 months ago
Hi David,

Do you mind translating the sentence in paragraph 2 of the excerpt "Petrus Claver, aethiopum semper servus. Pedro Clver esclavo de los esclavos negroes para siempre." thanks! bill 
Margaret Frenzel
7 years 10 months ago
I knew absolutely nothing about St. Peter Claver prior to reading this post!  He seems like such an admirable man.  I am so thankful that people like him have come along in history to make the world a better place.
we vnornm
7 years 10 months ago
Muchas gracias, David. bill
Lauren Esposito
7 years 10 months ago
          I thoroughly enjoyed reading such an amazing story.  Like others, I too have never been privy to St. Peter Claver’s story; but I am truly glad I have now.  As a mission of the church to help those who are less fortunate, Pete Claver never thought twice about his actions.  I think it is important for others to be knowledgeable about his wondrous deeds.
Kate Conard
7 years 10 months ago
It is people like Peter Claver who are truly inspirational in life.  Though it happened so long ago in history, they will not be forgotten for the difference they made in people's lives.  It just shows that even when something that seems so uncontrollable, but is wrong, we can make a difference and change history.  It's sad to think about how African American's were treated like animals by others.  For Peter Claver to stand up for what he believed was right especially in that time period is inspirational.  I wonder if I was in that situation if I could do the same.  Unfortunately, I'm not sure If I would be brave enough to stand up to the government laws and society.  I wonder if many of us were in these situations, if we would realize it was wrong, or if we would be too influenced by society.  It's sad to think about.  Thanks goodness for those who put their foot down to help the slaves and go against authority because it was one of the smartest moves in history and made some of the biggest differences.    
Helen Deines
7 years 10 months ago
Reading so many comments from those unfamiliar with St. Peter Claver and the Knights leads me to make a little suggestion.  This old white Catholic woman began a wondrous spiritual journey by reading Fr. Cyprian Davis' History of Black Catholics in the US. When Fr. Davis opened my eyes to what no one had ever taught me, I just kept reading, going to lectures, reaching out beyond my comfort zone, and meeting the fullness of the image of God.  Thanks to America for encouraging us all to do likewise.    
Katrina Ferrer
7 years 10 months ago
It is amazing the way one person's selflessness has lasted al these years. Nearly four hundred years ago he gave away so much of himself with nothing to gain. I wonder if there are people among us who would do the same, and with such grace. It is all to often that men and women will give everything they have, not in possessions but in ways that mean so much more, and and never be remembered for their sacrifice. It is beautiful the way his memory and spirit is honored by the church. He was an example of a christian and as a human being that anybody would be lucky to live up to.
Ryan Mead
7 years 10 months ago
I also have to agree this story was very uplifting. St. Peter Claver was quite the man and I had no idea who he was till I read this article. I find it impressive that even in those times that Claver went out of his way to help and treat any soul including the ones of slaves. It was even said that when the slaves were taken off the boats to be sold Claver plunged in among them with medicines, food, bread, brandy, lemons and tobacco. This man truly sacrificed his whole life to treating the less fortunate and to make their lives the best they could be under the circumstances.

I agree with Kayna that establishing a Knighthood in Alabama was what African Americans needed during the times of harsh prejudice and racism. It's a shame that an organization like this goes unknown to most of the general public and was not mentioned once throughout my elementary education of history. It's nice to see that people were standing up to the hate during that time and yet it's sad to see that the impact made by this group was minimal.

Alexandra Burgess
7 years 10 months ago
I too must admit that prior to reading this post, I had never heard of the great St. Peter Claver!However, now that I am familiar with his story, it seems only appropriate  to commend him for taking a risk and going against the status quo. As a few others have mentioned, his compassion towards helping protect the slaves was truly courageous . We must learn from St. Peter Claver's example and continue to reject acts of racism so history will not repeat itself!


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