St. Peter Claver was born about 1580 in Verdu, Catalonia, Spain. He studied at the University of Barcelona, and entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) when he was only twenty years old. In 1610 Peter left Spain and went to Cartagena (located in modern-day Colombia).
Cartagena was a major center of the slave trade, though the popes condemned the practice repeatedly. Over 10,000 slaves passed through the city yearly, after enduring inhumane treatment and a terribly difficult journey from West Africa. As many as one-third had already died during the long travels due to horrible conditions.
“Then we sat, or rather knelt, beside them and bathed their faces and bodies with wine. We made every effort to encourage them with friendly gestures and displayed in their presence the emotions which somehow naturally tend to hearten the sick.” — St. Peter Claver
Peter was ordained a priest in 1616, and from then on he considered himself “the slave of the Negroes forever.” When a slave ship arrived, Peter would go on board to minister to the miserable passengers. Later, he distributed food, medicine, and other necessities as the slaves were being auctioned. He often visited the slaves on area plantations, staying with the slaves themselves rather than accepting the hospitality of the plantation owners. Peter was a moral force in the city, and was often found preaching in the main square. Though his efforts were opposed by some of the landowners, he never wavered in his commitment to the slaves, working with them for 40 years.
Peter realized the importance of living Christianity by meeting a person’s physical needs, but he did not neglect the spiritual works of mercy either. Peter gave the slaves basic instructions in religion and during his long ministry baptized an estimated 300,000 persons.
Peter also cared for Englishmen and other foreigners who were captured off marauding ships. He ministered to the sick in hospitals, and established charitable societies similar to those of St. Vincent de Paul. He died September 8, 1654. During his last four years of life Peter, half-paralyzed and in constant pain, was confined to one room, and though virtually ignored and neglected, did not complain, saying, “My sins deserve more punishment than this.”
“To love God as He ought to be loved, we must be detached from all temporal love. We must love nothing but Him, or if we love anything else, we must love it only for His sake.” — Saint Peter Claver
Other Saints We Remember Today
St. Gorgonius (303), Martyr