St. Peter Claver
Missioner to Slaves (1581–1654)

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St. Peter Claver

In 1610 Peter Claver, a Spanish Jesuit, landed in Cartagena (now in Colombia), a great port of entry for African slaves. Ten thousand arrived each year to work in the mines. The conditions of their journey were unspeakably atrocious, with perhaps a third of all who embarked from Africa failing to survive. To the wretched souls who remained Peter Claver devoted his life.

With the arrival of each fresh slave ship, Claver would make his way to the dock and talk his way past the captain to gain access to the “cargo.” There he would move among the dazed and half-dead Africans, treating their wounds and distributing food and drink. With the help of interpreters and pictures, he would try to communicate something of the principles of Christianity. How this was received is difficult to imagine. Nevertheless, it is estimated that during a career of forty years he baptized over 300,000 slaves. Claver tried to instill a sense of their dignity and preciousness in the eyes of God. This in itself represented a subtle subversion of the slave trade, and his attitude often provoked angry opposition. Nevertheless, he was tireless in his efforts, calling himself “the slave of the Negroes forever.”

In 1650 Claver was struck by plague. Though he survived, he was left physically helpless, virtually alone in his cell and in a state of shocking neglect. He died on September 8, 1654. The city and the Church that had scorned him now competed to honor his memory. Canonized in 1888, he was named the patron of social justice.

“We must speak to them with our hands before we speak to them with our lips.”

—St. Peter Claver

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.