Saint Peter Claver was born June 26th, 1580 into a very devout Catholic family in the village of Verdu, Spain roughly 54 miles from Barcelona. He studied at the college of Barcelona (a Jesuit school) and took his final vows on August 8th, 1604. It was during this time that he wrote the following into his notebook:
"I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death, on the understanding that I am like a slave."
Before taking his vows, he was sent to study philosophy at Palma, Mallorca. Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez, a lay brother known for holiness and prophecy became a good friend of Peter's and was compelled to tell him that he had been told by God that Peter should serve the colonies of New Spain. In time he would, and volunteered and was assigned to the New Kingdom of Granada. He arrived at Cartagena, a major port city in the year 1610. By this time, Cartagena had become a major hub of the African slave trade with nearly 10,000 slaves passing through the port yearly.
Deeply disturbed by the treatment of slaves, Saint Peter would meet the slave ships at the docks as they arrived. He would immediately board the ship and begin tending to the men and women aboard, praying and helping those who he could reach. One legend tells of his cloak - he always wore a cloak and would give it away to anyone needing it. Whoever wore the cloak would be cured of all diseases and have good health the rest of their lives.
After the slaves were pulled off the ship, he would follow them and walk within the crowd handing out medicine, food, tobacco and any other necessities. He would frequently travel to the numerous plantations during the off season (when Slaves were unlikely to arrive to the port) and it is estimated that he personally baptized over 300,000 slaves. Through their baptism, the slaves were then entitled to Christian civil rights. When he traveled to these plantations, he would most often stay only in the slave quarters with the slaves, refusing to stay with the planters or overseers.
He would spend the final years of his life sick and bedridden, largely ignored and occasionally physically abused by the man hired to care for him. This hired man was an ex-slave and often refused to bathe or feed him for days. Despite this terrible treatment, Saint Peter refused to complain, believing it to be his punishment for sins committed in his life.
He received his anointing with the oil of the Sacrament of the Sick in 1654. Locals crowded into the room, stripping it bare to keep as relics. The city magistrates held a massive formula in his honor and he was canonized in 1888 by Pope Leo XIII. Just a few years later, Pope Leo declared him to be the patron of missionary work among African peoples.
The Knights of Peter Claver Inc is the largest African-American Catholic fraternal organization in the United States and is currently headquartered in New Orleans. The Apostleship of the Sea continues his work today as a Catholic charity supporting sea farers through port chaplains and volunteer ship visitors in 334 ports with 227 chaplains in 59 countries.
You can find more information about the Knights of Peter Claver here:
And the Apostleship of the Sea here: