Saints for Today: Peter Claver, Missionary to Slaves (1580-1654)


Feast Day: September 09

In the late 16th century, the port of Cartagena in Columbia was the center of a thriving slave trade that had been established for nearly 100 years. Although the practice of slave trading was condemned by Pope Paul III, it continued to flourish. Thousands of captive Africans arrived at the port every month after crossing the Atlantic from West Africa under conditions so foul and inhuman that an estimated one-third of the passengers died in transit.

Born in Catalonia, Spain and educated at the University of Barcelona, Peter Claver’s spiritual journey began at the Jesuit college in Majorca. Here, he met Alfonso Rodriquez, who foretold that they both had a future in South America. Peter left his homeland forever in 1610 to be a Jesuit missionary in the New World. In Cartagena, he was ordained a priest by the Jesuits five years later. Under the direction of fellow Jesuit, Alfonso de Sandoval, who spent 40 years ministering to the slaves, Peter enlisted the help of catechists and interpreters to teach and baptize the faithful. Peter Claver baptized about 300,000 enslaved people and ministered also to traders, sailors, prisoners, and others in need.

Father Claver met every slave ship and nursed the sick personally, in spite of the stench of the pens in which the poor slaves were forced together with no hygienic facilities. After the slaves were herded out of the ship like chained animals and shut up in nearby yards to be gazed at by the crowds, Peter Claver plunged in among them with medicines, food, bread, brandy, lemons, and tobacco. With the help of his interpreters, he gave basic instructions and assured his brothers and sisters of their human dignity and God’s saving love. Through his love and care for them, Peter hoped to lead them to a love for Christ. He taught them this prayer: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, you will be my father and my mother and all my good. I love you much. I am sorry for having sinned against you. Lord I love you much, much, much.”

His apostolate extended beyond his care for the slaves. He became a moral force, indeed, the apostle of Cartagena. He preached in the city square, gave missions to sailors and traders as well as country missions, during which he avoided, when possible, the hospitality of planters and owners and lodged in the slave quarters instead.

In 1650 Peter Claver fell victim to an epidemic that was raging through the city of Cartagena. He never fully recovered from the sickness and could no longer carry on his ministry. Abandoned and forgotten by most of the people, he died. Then the people remembered him and he was given a public funeral at the expense of the state. He was never again forgotten, and was canonized in 1888 by Pope Leo XIII, together with his former companion, Alfonso Rodriquez of Mallorca. Pope Leo XIII also named him patron of all those who minister to Blacks in any part of the world.

Opening Prayer for Mass: “God of mercy and love, you offer all peoples the dignity of sharing in your life. By the example and prayers of St. Peter Claver, strengthen us to overcome all racial hatreds and to love each other as brothers and sisters.”


Foley, Leonard, O.F.M., and Pat McCloskey, O.F.M. “Saint of the Day-Updated and Expanded.” Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2013.
Lodi, Enzo. “Saints of the Roman Calendar-Updated and Revised Edition.” New York: Alba House, 2012.
Paul, Tessa, and Consultant, Reverend Ronald Creighton-Jobe. “An Illustrated Dictionary of Saints.” Wigston, Leicestershire: Anness Publishing, 2011.

Featured Image: Wikipedia Commons


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