St. Peter Claver (1580-1654) was a Spanish Jesuit missionary to Latin America. He is known as the "Apostle of the West Indies" and the "Slave to the Slaves."
Peter Claver was born in Verdu, Catalonia, on July 26, 1580, of prosperous parents. Little is known of his early years. In 1602 he entered the Society of Jesus. Three years later he began to study with Alphonsus Rodriquez in Majorca, with whom he shared a spiritual model of life focused on "suffering with Christ," which he would try to emulate for the rest of his life.
Haunted by a vision of going where he was really needed, Claver left his theological studies before completion and in 1610 went to Cartagena, New Granada (now Colombia). "Why stay in Europe," he asked, "when there are so many men of God needed in America?" He finished his Jesuit requirements and was ordained a priest in 1616 in Bogotá. In his profession he stipulated that he would "never admit any inferiority in the Negro slaves," and so that there would be no doubt of this, he proclaimed himself their slave, adding to his signature ethiopium semper servus (slave of the Negroes forever). One of his biographers states that "there have been few saints so specialized."
For the remaining 38 years of his life, Claver lived in Cartagena, one of the major Caribbean ports in Latin America to which slaves were imported. He had no social program but simply geared his life to the primary needs of the often sick and broken slaves who arrived on American shores. He was not a "revolutionary" priest, intent on changing the fabric of society; he simply cared for the slaves and exhorted the slave masters to be humane.
Claver made himself available to the black slaves. He met them at the port of the city, inquired about their Christian state, catechized those who had had no instruction before crossing the Atlantic, and allegedly baptized more than 300,000. After baptism he tried to nurture his "children," visiting the plantations and mines where the slaves were employed. In accordance with Pauline maxims, he urged slaves to be obedient but exhorted slave masters to be generous. In order to humanize these people hardly regarded as humans, he visited prisoners, nursed lepers and the sick, and worked for the release of some. He often protected fugitive slaves while seeking out good masters for them.
In 1650 Peter Claver became a victim of the plague and lived the rest of his life in almost complete solitude, dying on Sept. 8, 1654. He was canonized in 1887 and 3 years later was declared the patron saint of the missions to the Negroes.
Further Reading on St. Peter Claver
Angel Valtierra, Peter Claver, Saint of the Slaves (trans. 1960), is a critical biography by a Colombian admirer. Also useful is Arnold Lunn, A Saint in the Slave Trade: Peter Claver, 1581-1654 (1935).