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St. Peter Claver

A minister to slaves

St. Peter Claver

born: 1580

died: 1654

Feast Day: September 9

Claim to fame: St. Peter Claver was born in Spain and entered the Jesuit order in 1601, when he was just 22. St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, the “holy porter of Majorca,” prophesied that the young man would go to the Indies and save “millions of perishing souls.” So Peter Claver headed for Colombia, home to the largest slave market in the New World. After his priestly ordination in 1616, he made a vow to dedicate his life to ministering to the thousands of African slaves who arrived every month at the port of Cartagena. He always kept that vow, bringing an estimated 300,000 slaves into the Catholic faith, training African catechists to bring the Good News to the slaves in their own languages, and ministering to the slaves after they left the ships and began their lives on the Colombian plantations.

Little-known fact: In addition to caring for individual slaves’ physical and spiritual needs, St. Peter Claver worked to change the laws that governed their lives. While he was not able to abolish slavery, he did fight for laws that allowed for Christian marriage for slaves and that forbade the separation of families.

What made him a saint: St. Peter Claver willingly chose to spend his days entering the dismal, fetid holds of slave ships, caring for terrified, sick and dying slaves rather than accepting more comfortable ministries among Cartagena’s well-to-do Catholics. He personally begged from house to house to collect food to bring to the slaves. He used his own cloak as a covering for naked bodies, as a pillow for weary heads, and as a bandage for wounded flesh. Not forgetting about the slaves after he ministered to them at the slave market, he traveled out to the countryside every spring to conduct missions at the plantations. He also ministered to others besides slaves, preaching and converting sailors and political prisoners in the city. Pope Leo XIII said, “No life, except the life of Christ, has moved me so much as that of Peter Claver.”  

Best quote: St. Peter Claver summarized his ministry to the slaves in this way –  “We must speak to them with our hands by giving, before we try to speak to them with our lips.”

How did he die: After ministering to the slaves in Cartagena for nearly 40 years, St. Peter Claver fell ill from the plague and was partially paralyzed. For the final four years of his life, he was bedridden and nearly forgotten. However, upon his death at age 74 on Sept. 9, 1654, the governor of Cartegena ordered a public funeral for the saint, which was attended by thousands of people.

Prayer: St. Peter Claver, you showed Christ’s love to the slaves, going where no one else would go, and doing what no one else would do. Give us the courage to put aside our fears and prejudices and give wholly of ourselves to minister to those enslaved by poverty, hunger, fear, and ignorance. Help us to demonstrate Christ’s love by our actions as well as our words, so that others may come to believe in his saving power. Amen.