St. Peter Claver
Defender of Human Rights and Racial Relations
St. Peter Claver lived at a time when the Atlantic slave trade was reaching full steam yet few people were aware of the cost in human misery that went into supplying workers for the large, labor-intensive plantations and gold mines in the newly colonized Americas. Christians who lived on the opposite side of the ocean, far removed from the slave trade, were either unaware of what was going on or uninterested in things so far away from their daily lives.
Throughout the 40 years he lived in Carthagena, a major slave port city on the northwest coast of Colombia, St. Peter Claver did what he could to lighten the slaves’ misery by being Christ’s messenger of love in their midst. He was unable to abolish the slave trade but he became an incessant voice calling for change. The infamous Atlantic slave trade occurred over the course of more than 400 years, beginning in the 14th century and not ending until nearly the end of the 19th. More than 15 million Africans were forced to leave behind their families, homes, cultures, languages, and even their names as they were transported to foreign lands. They were forced to work under conditions that indentured servants, prison laborers, and indigenous peoples were unable to survive. Millions more Africans died before ever reaching the colonies. The treatment of African slaves by the European slave traders was particularly inhumane because, under their system of chattel slavery, they viewed the slaves as property or animals with no human rights.
Peter Claver was born into a prosperous farm family in the Spanish village of Verdu, about 54 miles from Barcelona, in 1581, about 70 years after King Ferdinand of Spain had set in motion the brutal colonial slavery culture by authorizing the purchase of 250 African slaves in Lisbon for his territories in New Spain. Peter’s mother prayed to Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, and to Mary, the Mother of God, for the gift of a vocation to the priesthood for her son. His parents taught Peter from early childhood to let nothing come between him and the love of God. As a student at the University of Barcelona, Peter Claver surpassed all others in piety as well as learning. He had felt drawn to the priesthood from a young age and asked to be admitted into the Jesuit Order. He was given permission to enter the Jesuit novitiate at Tarragona in 1602, and after two years of study there, he wrote these words in a notebook which he kept with him throughout his life, “I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death, on the understanding that I am like a slave, wholly occupied in the service of his master and in the endeavor to please and content Him in all and in every way with his whole soul, body, and mind.”
The whole of Peter’s spirituality was based on four precepts taught to him by St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, the 72-year-old doorkeeper of the Jesuit College in Majorca, an island off the coast of Spain. Peter carefully wrote in his notebook the elderly saint’s rules for sanctity: seek God in all things; strive to achieve total submission to your superiors; direct all actions to the greater glory of God; and work zealously to save souls. Peter particular took to heart St. Alphonsus’ advice to “love God alone, or if you love any other thing, you should do so for God’s sake and in no other way,” making this maxim his rule of conduct. Fr. Angel Valtierra, S.J., describes the fundamental traits of Peter’s character: “humility and submission…silence and reserve …and faithful observance of the rules of his institute…”. Peter wrote in his notebook, “The man who is truly humble seeks to be despised. He submits to all, obeys all, honors all, reproves none.” Peter lived during a great age of missionary movement: the renowned Jesuit missionary, St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) had traveled and worked in India just several decades before Peter was born. As Peter was growing up, other missionaries in India were following in the footsteps of St. Francis Xavier, expanding their mission bases along the west coast of India and making many converts, especially among the country’s lower castes. Missionaries, such as Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) were teaching and evangelizing in China, and there were a number of Jesuits working in Mexico at the same time that Fr. Alfonso de Sandoval (who would later teach Fr. Peter Claver about the pastoral care of the African slaves) was just beginning his work of evangelization among the African slaves arriving in Colombia. A number of missionaries were working in Africa while Fr. Issac Jogues (1607-1646) and companions were serving among the Indian tribes in Canada.
It was St. Alphonsus who urged Peter to go to the South American missions where, he told Peter, he would save “millions of abandoned souls,” and it was there that Peter advanced in sanctity as he placed his life at the service of the victims of the slave trade. Peter was so thankful upon receiving the letter giving him permission to serve in the West Indies that he prostrated himself on the ground humbly thanking God for the mission bestowed on him. He kept the letter, rereading it throughout his life. Cartagena had a very hot and humid climate, and many contagious diseases. Despite these difficulties, Peter was able to do the work of “six of the most diligent and fervent young men,” according to the Father Provincial.
Because the slaves came from different areas in Africa, Peter trained servants who were able to speak the various languages to help him as catechists. In a letter to a friend, Peter explained how they met and cared for the arriving slaves with food, medicine, and gifts which he would collect by begging. “Yesterday, May 30, 1627, on the feast of the Most Holy Trinity,” Peter wrote, “numerous blacks, brought from the rivers of Africa, disembarked from a large ship. Carrying two baskets of oranges, lemons, sweet biscuits, and I know not what else, we hurried toward them. We had to force our way through the crowd until we reached the sick. Large numbers of the sick were lying on the wet ground or rather in puddles of mud. To prevent excessive dampness, someone had thought of building up a mound with a mixture of tiles and broken pieces of bricks. This, then, was their couch, a very uncomfortable one not only for that reason, but especially because they were naked, without any clothing to protect them.
“We laid aside our cloaks, therefore, and brought from a warehouse whatever was handy to build a platform. In that way we covered a space to which we at last transferred the sick, by forcing a passage through bands of slaves. Then we divided the sick into two groups: one group my companion appro-ached with an interpreter, while I addressed the other group. There were two blacks, nearer death than life, already cold, whose pulse could scarcely be detected. With the help of a tile we pulled some live coals together and placed them in the middle near the dying men. Into this fire we tossed aromatics. Then, using our own cloaks, for they had nothing of the sort and to ask the owners for others would have been a waste of words, we provided for them a smoke treatment, by which they seemed to recover their warmth, and the breath of life. The joy in their eyes as they looked at us was something to see. “This was how we spoke to them, not with words but with our hands and our actions. And in fact, convinced as they were that they had been brought here to be eaten, any other language would have proved utterly useless. Then we sat, or rather knelt, beside them and bathed their faces and bodies with wine. We made every effort to encourage them with friendly gestures and displayed in their presence the emotions which somehow naturally tend to hearten the sick.
“After this we began an elementary instruction about Baptism; that is, the wonderful effects of the sacrament on body and soul. When by their answers to our questions they showed they had sufficiently understood this, we went on to a more extensive instruction, namely, about the one God, who rewards and punishes each one according to his merit. Finally, when they appeared sufficiently prepared, we told them the mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Passion. Showing them Christ fastened to the cross…we led them in reciting an act of contrition in their own language.” Although Peter’s work often enraged the slave owners and inconvenienced the city’s wealthy citizens, his sanctity slowly transformed the city from a very corrupt seaport into a remarkably good city: there were many conversions among the entire population and many miracles occurred through his intercession.
After working for 36 years among the slaves, a plague hit the city which left Peter, who was by then old and exhausted, nearly incapacitated. He could no longer walk and was left under the care of a rough servant who often neglected or ill treated him the last four years of his life. As Fr. Valtierra aptly put it, “The man who made his life a constant slavery in the service of slaves suffered abandonment in a cell…” To all of the cruel treatment, Peter would say that because of his sins he deserved much worse. One million slaves passed through the city of Cartegena, and during the 40 years of his service, Peter cared for one third of them, baptizing 300,000, before they were sent on to other places. Wherever there were slaves throughout the West Indies, there were those who had heard words of hope and love from Peter Claver. In the midst of their abandonment, the slave of the slaves had shown them that they were dearly loved by God. He demonstrated through his service of love that there is a fundamental equality in men regardless of the color of one’s skin.
At the age of 73, Peter died quietly in the early hours of the morning of September 8, 1654. In 1888, Pope Leo XIII canonized Peter Claver as someone who lived the Gospels in a heroic way. On November 18, 1985, the president of Colombia, Belisario Betancur, signed Law 95 giving St. Peter Claver the title Precursor in the Defense of Human Rights, and commissioned a statue which depicts St. Peter Claver strolling through the streets of the city of Cartegena with a slave. The statue sits in front of the saint’s humble home in the city.
The Miracle That Led To St. Peter Claver’s Canonization
Was Performed at the Shrine of St. Joseph in St. Louis, MO.
In 1853, Ignatius Strecker, a native of Germany, arrived in St. Louis, Missouri, with his wife and nine children. He found employment in a local soap factory. Late in 1861, a sharp piece of iron bruised his chest, resulting in constant pain.
His family physician tried external applications, with no success; he opened the wound and found that the breastbone and several ribs were in a state of incipient decomposition. Mr. Strecker developed a violent cough and fever as well as symptoms of tuberculosis. Breathing became difficult. His appetite worsened. A leading specialist was called in, and he advised Mr. Strecker that he had only two weeks to live.
Father Francis Xavier Weninger, a Jesuit missionary, was conducting a mission at the Strecker family’s parish, St. Joseph Church. Mrs. Strecker attended a service in which Father Weninger preached on Blessed Peter Claver, believed to have great intercessory powers with God. Mrs. Strecker implored her dying husband to seek the help of Peter Claver.
The next day, March 6, 1864, Mr. Strecker arrived just as Father Weninger was blessing the congregation with a relic of Peter Claver. The priest allowed him to kiss the relic. Immediately the sick man experienced a resurgence of strength. Within a few days he returned to his job and in a few months he was restored to full health.
Mr. Strecker died on June 4, 1880. The City Board of Health certified that his death was due to typhoid fever, and in no way connected with his earlier illnesses.
Two years later, the Most Reverend Michael O’Connor, a Jesuit priest, made thorough canonical investigation of the incident. In 1887, the miracle was declared authentic by Cardinal Bianchi in Rome and chosen as one of the two required miracles in the canonization process of Peter Claver, who became a Saint the following year. His feast day is celebrated on September 9.