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by Sandra Miesel

The African slave trade left a lasting stain on the Western Hemisphere but its cruel challenge was met by St. Peter Claver (1580-1654), "slave of black slaves for all time." His unfailing charity and dogged persistence in the face of overwhelming odds are an inspiration to all engaged in works of mercy.

Peter Claver was a Catalan, youngest son of a prosperous farmer. After entering the Society of Jesus in 1602, he was later sent to study on the island of Majorca where he found a mentor in the kindly old college porter Alphonsus Rodriguez. Over the course of three years, Brother Alphonsus encouraged Peter’s call to the missions and taught him to "look for God in all men."

In due course Peter was dispatched to South America and was ordained a priest in 1616 at Cartegena, in what is now Colombia. As the treasure-port of the Caribbean, Cartegena received 10,000 African slaves a year shipped from Angola and Congo.

Those who survived the horrors of theocean crossing found Peter waiting for them with food, drink, and medicine. He tended the sick first, then baptized infants and the dying.. "We must speak to them with our hands," he said, "before we try to speak to them with our lips." Helping Peter speak were seven interpreters and a set of basic visual aids. He preached that Jesus died for all men, slaves and master alike. This simple message produced 300,000 baptisms over Peter’s career. Peter’s predecessor in this work had scarcely been able to stand the conditions, but Peter’s zeal never faltered. He relied on prayer and severe penances to keep him humble.

Peter followed up initial contact at the port with visits to inland plantations. Slave owners resented Peter’s inspections as well as his appeals to reform their own lives. They did whatever they could to oppose his work, for hope and dignity were not lessons they wanted slaves to learn.

When not busy ministering to slaves, Peter visited hospital patients, including lepers. He evangelized visiting seamen, merchants, Protestant war prisoners, and condemned felons. He won repentance from every criminal executed in Cartegena during his stay. Peter still found time to be a confessor, counselor, and preacher to people of the city.

When a plague epidemic struck Cartagena in 1650, Peter nursed the sick until he fell ill himself. He survived but was left permanently disabled with tremors that kept him from saying Mass ever again. Although abused by the freed slave hired to care for him, Peter humbly refused to complain.

Four years later when Peter lay on his deathbed, the city suddenly remembered him. Huge crowds came to pay their respects--and strip his room of relics. He died comatose on September 8, 1654 and received a splendid funeral. A new Spanish priest had arrived shortly before his death to carry on his work.

St. Peter Claver is the universal patron of missions to black people. He was canonized in 1851 beside his old friend Alphonsus Rodriguez.

St. Peter’s feast day is September 9.

Originally published in Four County Catholic, newspaper of the diocese of Norwich CT. Used with permission.

Sandra Miesel is the co-author, with Carl Olson, of The Da Vinci Hoax. She holds masters’ degrees in biochemistry and medieval history from the University of Illinois. Since 1983, she has written hundreds of articles for the Catholic press, chiefly on history, art, and hagiography. She regularly appears in Crisis magazine and is a columnist for the diocesan paper of Norwich, Connecticut. Sandra has spoken at religious and academic conferences, appeared on EWTN, and given numerous radio interviews. Outside the Catholic sphere, she has also written, analyzed, and edited fiction. Sandra and her husband John have raised three children.

Visit | Sandra's thoughts on The Da Vinci Code

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