Amidst the horrific travesty of the 17th century slave trade, St. Peter Claver labored tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of the enslaved and share the Gospel with them. Though as a humble priest, he alone could not dismantle the system of slavery, he sought to draw the oppressed to Christ and afford them the dignity they deserved. As we celebrate his Memorial on September 9, we invite you to learn more about his life, legacy, and where you can find him portrayed in the Basilica.
St. Peter’s Early Life
Peter Claver was born close to Barcelona in 1581. Though little is known about his early life, he joined the Society of Jesus at age 20 and traveled to present-day Columbia in 1610. There, he became a priest and eventually settled in the port of Cartagena, a major hub of the slave trade. Every year, about 10,000 slaves endured the brutal journey from West Africa to Cartagena, often arriving malnourished and sick. While many people chose to simply look the other way in the face of their suffering, Peter dedicated himself to ministering to them.
When ships sailed into port, Peter would come to provide medicine, food, and water to the slaves. He believed it was critical to meet their physical needs and not simply proselytize, saying, “We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak to them with our lips.” He also visited the plantations and mines where the slaves worked and the yards where they were “broken” – that is, beaten into a submissive state. Rather than stay in the fine rooms of the hacienda, he chose to sleep in the slaves’ lodgings so that he could see how well the laws for slave protection were followed. Not only did he share any discoveries of violations with local authorities, but he also continued to advocate for better treatment from slave owners.
St. Peter’s Evangelism
In addition to providing for the slaves’ material needs, Peter cared for their souls by sharing the Gospel with them. Of course, the language difference presented unique challenges, but with the help of seven translators and a series of pictures, he succeeded in drawing many of them to Christ. Over the course of his lifetime, he baptized 300,000 converts.
Ostensibly, Peter’s ministry won him enemies: many slaveowners viewed him as a threat to their livelihood and often blamed his influence when slaves disobeyed. But nothing could stop him from fulfilling his ministry. Tragically, when the plague broke out in 1650, Peter fell ill, and, with no one to care for him, degenerated into a weaker and weaker state until he passed away in 1654.
St. Peter Claver’s Legacy
Today, St. Peter Claver’s life of compassion for the oppressed serves as an example of Christlike love. At the Basilica, you can find him portrayed in a relief sculpture in the west façade.
Butler’s Lives of Saints, ed. Bernard Bangley
The Way of Saints, by Tom Cowan