Long before Martin Luther King Jr. became the face and voice of the civil rights movement, and long before he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for combating racial inequality through nonviolent activism, there was St. Peter Claver.   

Born in 1580 in Verdù, Spain, he was educated at the University of Barcelona before joining the Jesuits at age 20, according to aleteia.org. He volunteered to minister in the Spanish colonies and in 1610 was sent to Cartagena, Columbia. At the time, Cartagena was the center of the slave trade in South America, with thousands arriving annually from West Africa under harsh conditions. Many died during the months-long crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.  

According to “Voices of the Saints,” St. Peter Claver was “deeply moved by their unimaginable misery” and vowed to be “the slave of the enslaved Africans forever.” For the next 40 years, he served the slaves, bringing them food, bathing them and tended the wounds of “slaves chained in sickening hovels or hid in the homes of the rich” (“Voices of the Saints”).  

 

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Members of the Knights of Peter Claver at the 50th anniversary of St. Catherine of Sienna Church in Donaldsonville in Aug., 1974. The church parish was established Aug. 6, 1924.  Photo provided by Archives Department of the Diocese of Baton Rouge  

 

St. Peter Claver stain glass

When slave ships were not arriving at the port, St. Peter Claver would visit the plantations to minister to the slaves. His efforts over the years slowly helped to improve the situation for slaves.  

He also ministered to other members of society as well as traders, visitors, condemned criminals and the sick. 

St. Peter Claver died on Sept. 8, 1654 and was canonized in 1888 by Pope Leo XIII. In 1896, Pope Leo declared him the patron of all missionary work among blacks.  

Many organizations, missions, parishes, schools and hospitals are named in honor of St. Peter Claver. The Knights of Peter Claver, Inc., is the largest African American Catholic fraternal organization in the United States. It is currently headquartered in New Orleans and the organization is active in the Diocese of Baton Rouge. 

The Feast Day of St. Peter Claver is Sept. 9.