Born in Spain, the young Jesuit Saint Peter Claver journeyed to the New World in 1610, never to return to his homeland. He found himself in the bustling port city of Cartagena, present-day Colombia, where he was ordained in 1615.
By then, the vile transatlantic slave trade had been active for almost a century, with Cartagena being its major hub. Heartbreakingly, an estimated third of the slaves did not survive the harrowing journey from West Africa. Despite papal condemnations of this trade by Pope Paul III, and its denouncement as “supreme villainy” by Pius IX, it sadly thrived.
Saint Peter Claver dedicated himself to continuing the compassionate work of his predecessor, Jesuit Father Alfonso de Sandoval. With a heart full of love, Claver called himself “the slave of the Negroes forever.”
Whenever a slave ship anchored in the port, Claver immediately set to work. Venturing into its depths, he ministered to the anguished souls aboard. Once the slaves were forcibly moved from the ships, Claver was there, providing them with food, medicine, and comforting words. Through the use of interpreters, he reminded them of their inherent worth and God’s unending love. During his 40-year tenure, it’s believed that Claver baptized and educated around 300,000 slaves.
But Claver’s efforts were not limited to aiding the enslaved. He was a beacon of hope and morality in Cartagena. He preached publicly, reached out to sailors, traders, and even conducted missions in the countryside. Notably, he often chose to stay with slaves during these missions, rather than with their wealthy owners.
The last four years of his life were marked by illness, rendering him inactive. Sadly, he was largely overlooked and neglected during this time. He passed away on September 8, 1654. Though once critical of his advocacy for the slaves, the city’s leaders recognized his impact, ensuring he was honored with a grand public funeral.
In 1888, Saint Peter Claver was canonized. Later, Pope Leo XIII named him the patron saint of missionary work for black slaves, cementing his legacy as a beacon of hope and compassion.
Photo credit: Mill 1 via Wikimedia Commons