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