Feast Day : September 9
Patronage: African Americans; Colombia; missions to black people; missions to non-European nations; race relations
Name meaning: Rock
Also known as: Slave of the Blacks
Peter Claver was born in 1581 in Verdu, Catalonia, Spain, the son of a poor farmer. After studying at the Jesuit college in Barcelona, he became a Jesuit novitiate, taking his final vows on August 8, 1604. Under the influence of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, Peter decided to dedicate himself to missionary work in the New World. He landed at Cartagena, in what is now Colombia, in 1610. Cartagena was then the center of the South American slave trade, and Peter was greatly disturbed by the plight of the bonded Africans he saw arriving by the hundreds. At his ordination in 1616, he vowed “to be a slave of the slaves forever,” and set himself to the task with uncommon zeal. Accompanied by African interpreters, he met every slave ship, taking them food begged in the city. Though his main concern was in saving souls, he recognized that bodily needs must be attended first. He washed and tended wounds, buried the dead and ministered to the living by use of pictures of the Trinity. During his 40-year career, he is said to have baptized over 300,000 slaves, among them many infants. Peter was concerned not only with the slaves as they arrived but also with their continuing welfare. He fought for the enforcement of laws providing for the Christian marriage of slaves and the unity of families, and after Easter each year he journeyed into the hinterlands to preach and hear confession. Peter also preached to the general populace in Cartagena, becoming its apostle. It is reported that his person was sometimes illuminated with rays as he passed through the hospital wards of the city. His cloak also took on a supernatural cast. He used the cloak for many purposes—as a covering for lepers and the putrescent, as a pillow for the sick, as a pall to the dead. The cloak soon became legendary. It was said that its very touch could cure, and people sought to come into contact with it, and if they could, to tear off a piece for themselves, so that before long its edge was torn ragged. When the plague struck Cartagena in 1650, Peter was one of the first victims. For four years he was bedridden in his cell, unable to work and almost forgotten. However, when he announced that his death was near, crowds came to kiss his hands and feet and to take away from his cell whatever they could as relics. He died on September 8, 1654, and was given a public burial. In art, Peter Claver is a Jesuit with a black person.