Stained glass windwo depicting St. Peter Claver. Wikimedia Commons

Peter Claver, ‘Slave of Slaves’

The priest repeatedly condemned how slaves were treated

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Father Peter Claver (1581-1654) called himself the “slave of slaves.” It is alleged that he baptized as many as 300,000 individuals, mostly Black slaves during his 40-year priesthood. Father Claver committed himself to live among and serve the most abused, most marginalized, most shunned people in society. He saw the face of Jesus in the slave, the sick, the forgotten.

His presence was a ray of hope to others in the manner of saints like Mother Teresa, who cared for the destitute people of Calcutta, and Father Damian, who died ministering to the people of Molokai. Pope Leo XIII (r. 1878-1903) wrote, “No life, except the life of Christ, has moved me so deeply as that of Peter Claver.”

Canonized in 1888, his feast day is celebrated on Sept. 9. St. Peter Claver is the patron saint of those who minister to Blacks anywhere in the world.

Slave Trade

St. Peter Claver
St. Peter Claver, canonized by Pope Leo XIII in 1888, baptizes a Black man. Engraving by J. Vitta after P. Gagliardi. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Between the 16th and 19th centuries an estimated 14 million slaves were brought across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to the New World. One of the main destinations for the slave ships was Cartagena, now part of Colombia, South America, where thousands of slaves arrived each month. Cartagena was the site of several silver and gold mines in need of labor. The Africans were considered as physically able to work in the mines, while the local Indians were not.

Cartagena was also a jumping-off point where wealthy individuals from other countries came to buy slaves. It was here, to serve the African slaves, that God placed Peter Claver. In 1610, Peter left his home in Spain and never saw his family or homeland again.

The slaves brought to Cartagena were purchased in West Africa, then transported to and sold at a significant profit upon arrival. The conditions on the slave ships were deplorable. The Africans were stripped, chained together, crammed on top of one another in the ship’s lower level where communicable diseases, dysentery and scurvy prevailed. During stormy weather, the area holding the slaves was covered over and the heat nearly drove them mad. Many refused to eat, choosing to starve to death. Up to a third of each group died during the voyage, which could take more than six weeks. Those that survived the crossing were in poor health upon arrival in Cartagena.

Meeting Slave Ships

Slave ships docking in Cartagena were met by Father Claver, who consecrated his life to God and to serving the African slaves, “doing it as though I were a slave.” Even before a ship arrived, Peter went through the town begging for foodstuffs, tobacco and brandy with which he sought to comfort the poor souls held captive on board.

The arriving slaves were from different areas of Africa and as many as 40 different languages or dialects were spoken. Accordingly, Father Claver found interpreters to help him communicate with the diverse slave groups. Interpreters and other assistants often had difficulty with the onboard scenes that confronted them: naked people shackled together, living in their own vomit and excrement, filled with disease, some even dying.

Father Claver attended to the dying first, comforting and baptizing them. Next, he fed, cleaned and covered others, seeking to make their misery somewhat tolerable. But mostly, it was his demonstrations of love that lifted these bewildered souls.

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U.S. Bishops and Racism

“Racist acts are sinful because they violate justice. They reveal a failure to acknowledge the human dignity of the persons offended, to recognize them as the neighbors Christ calls us to love (Mt 22:39).”

— “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, A Pastoral Letter against Racism,” USCCB

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He said about the slaves, “We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak to them with our lips.” Once offloaded, the slaves were herded into compounds where they were held for the slave auction. Here Father Claver continued to bring food and care, offering them his kind manner, treating them with respect in the midst of those who often considered the slaves as subhuman. Here, with the help of an interpreter, he sought to open the captive’s eyes to Jesus and encourage their baptism.

While not favoring slavery as an institution, some Catholic leaders of the time believed bringing the African slaves to the New World was ultimately a better situation for them than remaining a slave in Africa where there was less likelihood of knowing Christ, less likelihood of genuine conversion and Christian baptism.

Father Claver did not openly condemn slavery, rather he repeatedly condemned how the slave was treated. “Claver, though not a conscious reformer of slavery, was unconsciously preparing the way for emancipation. Two hundred years were to pass before the slaves were free, but the campaign for emancipation owed more than it ever guessed to the labors of men like Father Claver, who raised these wretched Negroes not only in their own estimation, but in the estimation of their fellow Christians,” author Arnold Lunn wrote in “A Saint in the Slave Trade” (Sheed and Ward, 1935). Peter Claver was among the first human rights advocates.

The Center of His Life

When not attending to arriving slaves, Father Claver visited those already enslaved in the mines, on plantations and wherever they were located. He showed them the way to salvation, proclaimed the Gospel and chastised abuses. If he discovered a sick slave shunned by the owner, Claver brought the person to his room, gave up his bed, his food and attempted to nurse the person back to health.

Besides the slaves, he also offered missions and Masses for the thousands of sailors, traders, even Muslims, who came through Cartagena. Before a special feast day of the Church, he would go around the city and countryside encouraging slave owners to allow, even bring, their slaves to Mass and confession on the feast day.

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Instructions of St. Peter Claver

“Many were the instructions which he received from his Divine Master: ﹍Seek God in all things, and to find him in all. Do everything for the greater glory of God. Use every endeavor to acquire so perfect an obedience as to submit one’s will and judgment to the superior, as to Jesus Christ himself. Seek nothing in this world but what Jesus himself sought, namely to sanctify souls, to labor, to suffer, to die even for their salvation, for the sake of Jesus.”

— “The Life of St. Peter Claver, S.J.: The Apostle of the Negroes,” John R. Slattery, (Philadelphia: H.L. Kilner and Co., 1893)

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Father Claver would start hearing confessions at 3 a.m., giving priority to the slaves. When elite citizens argued against this arrangement or complained that the church smelled because of the slaves, Father Claver kindly suggested they find another confessor and another Mass.

One of the hospitals in Cartagena was designated for the poor, wounded soldiers and those suffering from fatal diseases. These patients were mostly abandoned, left alone, but not by Father Claver. He saw to their welfare, giving them baths, dispensing medicine and making sure they were fed.

Exposing himself to awful illnesses, he reminded these neglected, suffering souls that they were the precious children of God and that he would never desert them. Wherever he found the oppressed: when they got off the slave ship, when they were locked in the holding pens, enslaved in the mines, incarcerated in prison, neglected in the hospital, Father Claver brought them the light of Christ, gave them hope and dignity as human beings. For 40 years, during every day of his Spirit-filled life, he served others.

A humble man, he once said: “It behooves me always to imitate the example of the ass. When he is evilly spoken of, he is dumb. When he is starved, he is dumb. When he is overloaded, he is dumb. When he is despised and neglected, he is still dumb. He never complains in any circumstances, for he is only an ass. So also, must God’s servant be: ‘Ut jumentum factus sum apud te’ (‘As a beast before thee’).”

D.D. EMMONS writes from Mount Joy, Pennsylvania.

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St. Peter Claver Catholic Associations

Religious groups continue to identify with the heroic virtues of St. Peter Claver, including the following:

The Missionary Sisters of St. Peter Claver, formed over 125 years ago, serve in countries around the world, proclaiming the Gospel and caring for people in need much like their patron saint. Besides their own charitable works, the sisters promote the activities of other missionaries and in a collaborative way encourage the laity to do the same. More information is available at claveriansisters.com.

Another Catholic entity is the Knights of Peter Claver, founded as a fraternal order in 1910. Today some 18,000, mostly African Americans, vibrantly serve the Church from parishes in the United States and Colombia, South America. According to the Knights of Peter Claver “The objectives of this order are to be a staunch supporter to the local pastor of the parish and to the bishop of the diocese; to participate collectively in various parish and community activities; to promote civic improvements; to encourage lay apostolic and Catholic action; to make contributions to worthwhile causes; to award scholarships; to foster recreational assemblies and facilities; to develop youth; and provide social and intellectual fellowship for its members.” Additional information is available at kofpc.org.

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