Feast of St. Peter Claver, S.J. (September 9)

St. Peter Claver

St. Peter Claver

Today is the Feast of St. Peter Claver, S.J. Fr. Claver was a Jesuit and is the patron of African missions and of interracial justice, due to his work with slaves in Columbia.

Peter Claver was born to a wealthy Spanish family in 1580 and was educated at Barcelona University. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1601. While still in his studies he was sent to the Jesuit college in Palma de Mallorca (Majorca). Here he met Alphonsus Rodriguez, a Jesuit Brother who was the doorkeeper of the college (and who was later canonized as a saint). In conversations with Alphonsus, Peter was fired with a desire to do missionary work in the New World then being colonized by Spain and Portugal. He did his theological studies at Barcelona and then was sent to Cartagena (now in Colombia) in 1610. Six years later, he was ordained priest in 1616. 

At this time Cartagena was one of the main clearing houses of a flourishing but shameful trading of Africans from Angola and other parts of West Africa who were brought over in huge numbers under dreadful conditions to work as slaves in the New World. It has been estimated that some 10,000 were shipped over to Cartagena every year.

Peter began his work with the slaves under Fr Alfonso de Sandoval, who had already spent 40 years in this work. Peter walked in his predecessor’s footsteps and did even more.
When a slave-ship arrived in the port, the slaves were crowded like animals into large enclosures, crammed together in intense heat without care or medical attention of any kind. Peter would visit them bringing medicine, food, brandy and tobacco. He had a group of assistants who helped in the distribution and also acted as interpreters. With their help and also by using pictures, Peter taught the basics of Christianity and prepared many slaves for baptism. In their dreadful, animal-like living conditions, he also tried to increase their awareness of their basic dignity as people for each one of whom Christ died.

From Cartagena, the slaves would then be sent to work in the mines, work which was regarded as too difficult for the native peoples, and also to plantations. Peter would visit these places in the spring, not always with the approval of their owners. He would also take personal care of slaves reduced to conditions which no one else could endure. When he had pronounced his final vows in 1622, he signed his name, “Peter Claver, slave of the slaves forever” (Aethiopum semper servus). It was a promise he more than lived up to.  Claver had conflicts with civil authorities and other members of the clergy, who accepted slavery. Claver saw the slaves as fellow Christians, encouraging others to do so as well.

Claver did not confine his ministry to the slaves. He was also concerned about the spiritual welfare of the more prosperous members of society as well as traders and others passing through, including Muslims and English Protestants. He also helped prepare condemned prisoners for death and was a regular visitor to the hospitals. Every autumn he would go on a preaching mission to merchants and seamen in every port.

As well as leading a life of great austerity, miracles, prophetic statements and the gift of reading hearts were attributed to him. In 1650 he was taken ill while preaching to the slaves. It seems to have been a stroke because he was partially paralyzed for the remaining four years of his life.

In the last years of his life Claver was too ill to leave his room. The ex-slave who was hired to care for him treated him cruelly, not feeding him many days, and never bathing him. Claver never complained. He was convinced that he deserved this treatment.

In 1654 Peter was anointed with the oil of the Sacrament of the Sick. When Cartagenians heard the news, they crowded into his room to see him for the last time. They treated Peter Claver’s room as a shrine, and stripped it of everything but his bedclothes for mementos. Claver died September 7, 1654.

At his death the civil authorities and the clergy, who had been highly critical of him in life, were now united in his praise. He was given a civic funeral while the slaves and the native people arranged a Requiem of their own.

Pope Leo XIII canonized him in 1888 and in 1896 the same pope declared him special patron of missions.  Peter is revered for his great love of neighbor and his work in overcoming racial barriers and hatred. 


Living Space
Ignatian Spirituality

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog (www.teilhard.com) explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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11 Responses to Feast of St. Peter Claver, S.J. (September 9)

  1. claire46 says:

    Pedro Claver Corberó — I always like to know a saint’s name in his language of origin 🙂
    Otherwise, another great blog, William O. 🙂 Thank you.

  2. I haven’t heard much about him before. I love learning about new saints. Thanks for the post!

  3. ptero9 says:

    I had not heard of him before this morning when he was mentioned on the Catholic Channel on Sirius XM. Thank you for writing about this amazing saint!

  4. Lynda says:

    It is faith-building to read about the saints and to know that they surround us as a “cloud of witnesses”.

  5. Andrew B. says:

    I just learned I was baptized on St. Fr. Peter Claver’s feast day and he is my other patron Saint and trying to learn all I can on him. Few weeks ago, on twitter Pope Francis handed out homework from his General Audience saying, “find out when you were baptized and celebrate it as another birthday.”

    • Andrew, thank you for stopping by and commenting. That is a fascinating exercise. You are fortunate as St. Peter Claver is a definitely an interesting person and a great role model. I did the same exercise and found out that my baptism patron (soon to be) saint is Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (aka John XXIII). Very interesting also.

      • Andrew B. says:

        You’re welcome and found St. Peter Claver’s autobiography and trying to find any sermons or letters he wrote; so I can read his writings. I love soon to be Saint John XXIII; reading his Journal and inspired me to start my own like his.

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