Saint of the week

St Peter Claver, 9th September

St Peter Claver


St Peter Claver was a Spanish Jesuit priest who became known as the “saint of the slaves” because of his ministry among the Africans sold to labour in the mines and plantations of the New World.

He was born in 1581 in Verdu, Catalonia, to deeply Christian parents and he discerned his vocation to the Jesuits while studying at the University of Barcelona, recording in a notebook the words: “I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death, on the understanding that I am like a slave.”

St Peter entered the Society of Jesus at the age of 20 and took his first vows in Tarragona in 1602 before he was sent to Majorca where he encountered St Alphonsus Rodriguez, the “holy porter” who suggested that he went to the New World as a missionary. His Jesuit superiors eventually sent him to New Granada, now mostly Colombia, in 1610 and he would never return to Spain.

He disembarked at Cartagena, now in present-day Colombia, and travelled to the Jesuit house at Bogota to continue his training. He was instantly appalled at the harsh treatment of slaves that he witnessed during his preparatory years. He was finally ordained priest in 1615 in Cartagena, then one of the key gateways into Latin America for slaves transported from West Africa, with 10,000 arriving there every year.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade, supported by Catholic monarchs, was at that time flourishing in South America in spite of Pope Paul III denouncing the practice in the 16th century when it was instigated. Many traders responded to the opposition of the Church by simply having the slaves baptised. They did little, however, to recognise the humanity of their cargo and very often about a third of the people forced on to slave ships died during the journey across the Atlantic.

St Peter, working under the guidance of the great Jesuit missionary Alfonso de Sandoval, who had been ministering to slaves for about 40 years already, saw himself as the “slave of the Africans”. He and his team of assistants met vessels docking at Cartagena with medicines, food and drink for slaves. He baptised the dying and new-born babies and tended to the sick and he learned Angolan so he was able to communicate with some of the frightened and perplexed slaves from the moment of their arrival.

He would later catechise and baptise adults, and it is estimated that during his four decades of ministry in the slave-trading hub some 300,000 Africans entered the Church at his hands. He celebrated Mass for them, regularly visited the sick and those in jail and he and fought for the rights of slaves to marry and live together in families – sometimes in the face of hostility from slave owners and from those Catholic clergy who accepted slavery.

St Peter fell seriously ill to the plague in 1650 while on a mission and he was brought home to Cartagena where, according to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, he was treated with apparent neglect and contempt by his fellow Jesuits who were expecting him to die. He lingered on in a severely weakened state, barely able to leave his room, for four more years, however, before he slipped into a coma on the evening of 6 September 1654. He died two days later, his cell by then already stripped of anything that could be considered a relic.

The authorities who had undermined him suddenly did all they could to honour his memory and he was accorded a great official funeral. The slaves organised their own Mass to which they invited their Spanish overlords.

St Peter was canonised in 1888 by Pope Leo XIII, who named him patron of all missionary work among the black African peoples. His early mentor, St Alphonsus Rodriguez, was also canonised at the same ceremony.