Born in Spain, the son of a farmer, Peter Claver entered the Society of Jesus and was ordained in 1615 in Cartagena, South America, where he had made his higher studies. Cartagena was the center of the infamous slave trade, where many thousands of African slaves were landed after crossing the ocean amid inhuman conditions, and then penned like animals in yards. Their terrible plight, corporal and spiritual, tore at the heart of the young Jesuit and he determined to devote himself to the alleviation of their misery. At his profession he had vowed “to be a slave of the slaves forever,” and he now began to carry out this vow.
Though his main concern was the salvation of the slaves, he realized that their bodily misery needed attention first. “We must speak to them with our hands,” he said, “before we can speak to them with our lips.” His love and his endurance seemed boundless.
Taking only a minimum of sleep, he ministered tirelessly to the slaves, washing and tending their wounds, feeding them with food begged in the city, burying their dead, comforting them so lovingly that he appeared like an angel from heaven. He saw in them not only Christ’s brothers and sisters, but souls for whom He had bled and died. He instructed the adults by means of interpreters and pictures, and during the forty years of his heroic apostolic labors he is said to have baptized over 300,000, including infants.
He fought courageously for enforcement of the law providing for the Christian marriage of the slaves and forbidding the separation of families.Every spring he conducted missions for the slaves in the country, and in fall for the sailors and traders in the city, preaching in the streets’ hearing confessions for hours on end, so that he also became the apostle of Cartagena itself.
The plague struck the city in 1650, and Peter was one of its first victims. For four years he was bedridden in his cell, unable to work, and almost forgotten. However, when he announced his approaching end, crowds came to kiss his hands and feet and to take away from his cell whatever they could as relics.
He was given a public burial, and the fame of his heroism, his holiness, and his miracles soon spread throughout the world. Leo XIII declared him the patron of all missionary work among Blacks.
Taken from “A Saint A Day” by Berchman’s Bittle, O.F.M. Cap. published by The Bruce Publishing Company, (c) 1958.
Patron: against slavery; foreign missions; black people; race relations; Colombia; diocese of Shreveport, Louisiana; diocese of Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Symbols: ship; cockle shell used for baptizing; usually pictured baptizing a black slave.
Quote: “To love God as He ought to be loved, we must be detached from all temporal love. We must love nothing but Him, or if we love anything else, we must love it only for His sake.”