Peter Claver (Spanish: San Pedro Claver Corberó) (26 June 1580 – 8 September 1654) was a Jesuit who due to his life and work became the patron saint of slaves, of Colombia, and of African Americans.
St. Peter Claver was born in Verdu, Spain in 1580. Claver was born into a prosperous farming family in the Spanish village of Verdu, about 54 miles from Barcelona, in 1580, about 70 years after King Ferdinand of Spain had set in motion the colonial slavery culture by authorizing the purchase of 250 African slaves in Lisbon for his territories in New Spain. Claver's parents were devout Catholics and taught Peter from early childhood to let nothing come between him and the love of God. As a student at the University of Barcelona, Claver was noted for his piety as well as his high intelligence. He was given permission to enter the Jesuit College at Palma, Majorca in 1602, and after two years of study there, he wrote these words in a notebook which he kept with him throughout his life: "I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death, on the understanding that I am like a slave."
Claver arrived in Cartagena in 1610. By this time the slave trade had been established in the Americas for about 100 years and Cartagena was a chief center for it. Ten thousand slaves poured into the port yearly; crossing the Atlantic from West Africa under conditions so foul and inhuman that an estimated one-third of them died in transit. Although slave-trading was condemned by Pope Paul III and later labeled "supreme villainy" by Pius IX, there were fortunes to be made and it continued to flourish.
Claver's predecessor Alfonso de Sandoval had devoted himself to the service of the slaves for 40 years before Claver arrived to continue the work, declaring himself "the slave of the slaves forever."
As soon as a slave ship entered the port, Claver headed for the wharf and moved into its filthy and diseased hold to doctor and minister to the ill-treated and terrified human cargo. Claver always wore a cloak. He would lend the cloak to anyone who was in need. Legend says that whoever wore the cloak would inherit eternal health and be cleansed of any disease. After the slaves were herded from the ship and penned in nearby yards to be studied by crowds and buyers, Claver plunged in among them with medicines, food, bread, brandy, lemons and tobacco. With the help of interpreters and pictures which he carried with him, he gave basic instruction and assured the slaves of their human dignity and God's saving love. During the 40 years of his ministry, Claver single-handedly catechized and baptized an estimated 300,000 of these slaves. Furthermore, Claver followed up to see that as Christians they were accorded their legal rights. Through years of his unrelenting toil the situation of the slaves slowly began to improve.
His apostolate extended beyond his care for slaves. He preached in the city square, gave missions to sailors and traders as well as country missions - returning every spring to visit those he had baptized and to follow up that they were being treated humanely. During these missions he avoided, whenever possible, the hospitality of the planters and overseers, and would lodge instead in the slave quarters. His work on behalf of the slaves did not prevent him from caring also for the souls of the more well-to-do members of society and for the traders and visitors (including Muslims and English Protestants) to Cartagena, or for condemned criminals, many of whom he prepared for death. He was also a frequent visitor to the city's hospitals.
Illness finally forced the saint into his room, where he lingered another four years, largely forgotten and neglected. He died on September 9th 1654. The city magistrates ordered a public funeral, at public expense, and he was buried with great pomp and ceremony. It was only after the saint's death that the true scope of his ministry began to be realized; which was great even before the astronomical numbers of people he baptized is factored.
He was canonized in 1888, and Pope Leo XIII declared him the worldwide patron of missionary work among black slaves.
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