ST. PETER CLAVER:
atron of the Negroes in America
1581 – 1654
Peter was born in 1581 at Verdu, in Catalonia near Barcelona, Spain of impoverished farmers but descended from ancient and distinguished families. He had always nursed an ambition of one day becoming a missionary in the New World. So the first step he took into making his dream a reality he set out after only a few years of study at the University of Barcelona (where he later graduated about the year 1601 with distinction) to apply and was received into the novitiate of Tarragon hoping to be a Jesuit priest of the Society of Jesus. He was then sent to the college of Montesione at Palma in Majorca. His fateful meeting with Alphonsus Rodriguez the holy doorkeeper in the Jesuit college was to set the future direction of his life.
It was his humble lay brother who not only taught him about the saints but fired in him the idea of going to the New World to help save “millions of those perishing souls.”
Moved by the fervor of Alphonsus Peter offered himself in 1610 to his provincial for assignment to the West Indies. However it was to the South American city of Cartagena (now the republic of Columbia) then thriving principal slave market of the New World, where he was sent to complete his theological studies. It was there he was ordained in 1615 a Jesuit priest. He was to spend the next forty years of his life working there.
At that time Cartagena was a great and major port of entry for the African slave trade which had been established in the Americas for nearly a hundred years. Every year thousands of them sold by petty kings in Africa reaching to 10,000 would arrive at this major clearing-house to be sold to buyers from inland – there to work as slaves either in the mines or in the plantations (work considered “too onerous” for the native Indian). It was a very profitable business each slave being bought for about four crowns a head and sold for approximately 200 crowns!
It was after Peter had worked under Father Alfonso de Sandoval whom he met at his ordination and who was a great Jesuit missionary who himself had spent forty years in the service of the slaves that Peter declared himself “the slave of the Negroes forever.” Thus he devoted his apostolate joining Father de Sandoval to help him to alleviate the plight of the poor slaves who were transported to the New World from West Africa under the harshest foul and inhuman conditions imaginable.
Not only were they packed into the dark sunless holds of the ships like sardines for the whole of the three-month journey but like cordwood were chained together in packs of six to lie in their own filth. Fed daily with a mash of water and maize – just barely enough to keep them alive – with no medicines or treatment when they were sick it’s a wonder that 2/3 of them managed to survive the journey.
It was to these wretched souls that survived that Peter probably the first white man to concern himself with these unfortunates dedicated 33 years of his life to. Following the simple formula of modeling himself after the compassionate Jesus, Peter reached out to the slaves. As soon as he heard the canon blast that heralded the arrival of a slave ship with a new batch of slaves, Peter would hurriedly make his way to the docks. After talking his way past the captain he would finally get to meet the “cargo” in the yards where the scarcely alive slaves were crammed and penned with hardly room to breathe after being disgorged from the long arduous trip from West Africa. There they were displayed and sold until they were shipped out to the estates or mines.
It was here where the now “half-crazed fear-struck” new arrivals would be “broken” – that is prepared for the mines and plantations where they would work the rest of their lives.
Moving swiftly among the half conscious and half-dead stinking Africans Peter would first immediately greet them in the “horribly fetid hold,” distribute food and drink and minister to the sick and wounded.
It was only when they were clothed, fed, treated, encouraged and comfortable that through the help of black catechists, interpreters, pictures (to convey Christ’s life and His promise of redemption) and impromptu sign language as well as the universal language of friendly gestures and brotherly smiles would he try to communicate to them the message of the Gospel and some of the rudiments of Christianity. As he said to his assistant “We must speak to them with our hands first, before we try to speak to them with our lips.”
Then in the large town square he would baptize them presenting each one with a treasured medal of Jesus and Mary.
It was when Peter tried to instill in the slaves a sense of their human dignity and preciousness in the eyes of God that he got into trouble with the business and civil authorities who suspected that Peter might be undermining their lucrative commerce through his ministry.
However Peter was tireless in his efforts to improve the lot of the slaves who kept coming month after month in spite of repeated papal censure. Not only did he work unceasingly for the abolition of the slave trade but he would plead with the owners to be more humane and Christian. He would journey from one village to another regularly visiting where the slaves lived in the plantations to make sure that the few laws protecting them were being enforced. He would even bed down with them in the slave quarters. Peter thus became a forceful advocate for his wards continuously seeking better treatment from the authorities and slave owners.
Besides preaching powerful and hard hitting sermons to them in the church, marketplace and plazas he would spend as much as 15 hours a day hearing confession and instructing them in the faith. It is no wonder that he is said to have baptized as many as over three hundred thousand slaves in his 33 years career of being “a slave to the Negroes forever.” He would also solemnize their weddings and baptize their babies.
Peter also worked among prisoners who were condemned. It was said that during Peter’s lifetime no one was executed at Cartagena without his spiritual assistance.
Peter also worked among lepers ministering to them in the St. Lazarus Hospital.
Furthermore Peter became known as one blessed with such supernatural gifts as “prophecy, the power to perform miracles and the ability to read men’s minds.”
Each week Peter would visit the two hospitals of Cartegena. It is said that here he worked miraculous cures among the sick and dying.
Apostle of Cartagena
But Peter was not only apostle of the slaves but of the whole Cartagena. It is said that sometimes Peter would spend the whole day preaching to all who would stop to listen at the great square of the city or in the church or even at the market place.
As if working in repulsive circumstances were not enough mortification he would often pray alone in his cell with a crown of thorns on his head and a heavy cross weighing down his shoulders.
Unfortunately in 1650 Peter was struck by an outbreak of a plague that beset Cartagena. While he managed to survive he never fully recovered. In fact for the rest of his life he was weak and incapacitated and pain was his constant companion. Despite his illness he tried to continue his work although on a much reduced scale. The tragedy was that a trembling in his limbs made it impossible for him to celebrate Mass.
Poor Peter lived in extreme poverty and eventually succumbed and died in his cell four years later in 1654 virtually alone largely forgotten and neglected by all except for Dona Isabel de Urbina and her sister who came to nurse him. He finally got his wish to imitate the example of the Ass who never complains in any circumstances as he is only an ass. So also must God’s servant be. He died on September 8, the day we celebrate the birthday of Mary whom he dearly loved.
Rewards After Death
It is ironic that the rumor of his approaching end made everyone suddenly remember the extraordinary priest they considered a saint. Not only did they kiss his head before it was too late but they stripped his cell of anything that could be considered a relic. After Peter died the city and the church which had previously treated him with some reserve and even disdain now competed to honor his memory. They ordered a great and grand funeral and burial with much pomp for him at public expense and even the slaves arranged for a Mass to be said in his honor. He was never again forgotten and his fame spread throughout the world!
By ministering to victims of the African slave trade and by opening the people’s eyes to the evils and horrors of slavery and by starting charitable societies among the Spanish people to help the slaves Peter Claver achieved sainthood.
He was canonized in 1888 at the same time as his friend St. Alphonsus Rodriguez and named special patron saint of all Catholic Black missions – that is of all missionary activities to Negroes not only in Africa but in whatever part of the world by Pope Leo XIII in September 9, 1896. However he is also patron of Columbia and can be invoked also as patron by all who suffer from cruelty and scorn of the powerful. His feast is celebrated on this day and observed throughout the United States.
He is also the patron of Columbia and all of the Negroes in Africa.
SOURCES of REFERENCE
ST. PETER CLAVER
Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Vol. 3 – p 519 – 524
The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Saints – p. 192
Pocket Dictionary of Saints – pp 121
A Calendar of Saints – p 176
All Saints – pp 391 – 392
A Year With the Saints – September 9
Butler’s Saint of the Day – pp 234 – 236
Illustrated Lives of the Saints – Vol. 1 – pp 404 – 405
My First Book of Saints – pp 205 – 206
Saint Companions – pp 336 – 337
Saints for Our Time – pp 191 – 193
Butler’s Saint for the Day – pp 427 – 429
Children’s Book of Saints – pp 119 – 122
Voices of the Saints – p 546 – 547
The Flying Friar – pp 63 – 65
The Way of the Saints – pp 371 – 372
Book of Saints Part 1 – pp 20 – 21