Men in the distinctive regalia of the Knights of Peter Claver are noticeable at many large events around the Diocese of Charleston, but many people are not familiar with the group, its history or mission.
The Knights of Peter Claver, Inc. and Ladies Auxiliary is the largest predominantly black Catholic lay organization in the United States, with councils in 34 states, the District of Columbia and San Andres Island, Colombia. Nationwide membership is estimated at about 20,000.
The organization was founded in 1909 in Mobile, Ala., by four priests of the St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart, also known as the Josephite Fathers, and three Catholic laymen. They were Fathers Conrad F. Rebesher, Samuel J. Kelly, Joseph P. Van Baast and John H. Dorsey, and laymen Gilbert Faustina, Frank Collins and Frank Trenierin.
It was an era when segregation was the rule of law in the Southeast, and black men were denied membership in a Mobile area council of the Knights of Columbus. The founders established the Knights of Peter Claver to offer black lay Catholics a way to find fellowship and work together to promote the Gospel and serve the community.
The Knights were originally started as an organization for black Catholics, but membership today is open to any Catholic. In recent years, the Knights have worked to draw more members of the clergy, including bishops and cardinals, to join.
Peter Claver (1580-1654) was a Spanish Jesuit who spent 44 years as a missionary to African slaves brought to Cartagena, Colombia, which was one of the main hubs of Spanish trade during the 17th century. At the height of the era, more than 1,000 enslaved men and women landed at Cartagena each month.
Claver studied at the Jesuit College of Montessori and was mentored by an older man, who later was canonized as St. Alphonus Rodriguez. From Rodriguez, he learned about the many dimensions of Christ’s suffering and the concept of self-denial in the name of serving the Lord. Claver dedicated his life to service and became a missionary in Colombia at the age of 30.
He often met the Africans as they came off the boats, and offered fruit, bread and other supplies. Slaves were held at Cartagena before being sold and sent elsewhere, and during this time the saint joined with interpreters to spread the message of the Gospel to them. Claver, who became known as the “Apostle to the Slaves,” also believed in abolition and worked and prayed for the end of the slave trade. Tradition says he instructed more than 300,000 Africans in the Catholic faith. St. Peter Claver was canonized in 1888 and his feast day is Sept. 9.
The Knights of Peter Claver have an organizational structure similar in some ways to the Knights of Columbus. Men belong to councils, and women join courts. Each council is led by a grand knight. Young people ages 7-18 can join junior councils and courts.
There are four councils in South Carolina. The oldest is St. Peter Council 110, founded in 1949 at St. Peter Church in Charles ton, which merged with St. Patrick Church in 1968. Today, the Charleston council includes St. Patrick and Our Lady of Mercy parishes.
St. Jude Council in Sumter was founded in 1990, and St. Anthony of Padua Council 360 started in 1999. The newest council is St. Martin de Porres, established in 2004 in Columbia. All of the councils in South Carolina have Ladies Auxiliary Courts, which meet monthly and support a junior daughters division.
Community service projects and spiritual development for members are part of their ongoing work at all levels. The Knights of Peter Claver in Cha r leston have historically supported Jenkins Orphanage on Azalea Street. Members also serve on honor guards at major diocesan events.
The national headquarters for the Knights of Peter Claver is in New Orleans. Individual councils belong to regional districts. Knights in South Carolina belong to the Gulf Coast District, which also includes North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.
The Knights of Peter Claver are part of the worldwide International Alliance of Catholic Knights. They will serve as host organization later this year for the Alliance’s biannual international meeting from July 31 to Aug. 5 in New Orleans. The meeting will coincide with the Knights’ annual convention and centennial celebration.