St Peter Claver had a mission to seafarers who were largely in his time mistreated and abused slaves. He gave his life to bring to them the light of the Gospel and the compassion of Christ. His mission is continued today in the work of the Apostleship to the Sea.
Peter Claver was born in Catalonia, Spain in 1580. The son of a farmer, his mother died when he was thirteen. His father sent him to college in Barcelona. It was there that Peter decided to join the Jesuit Order, which at that time was a new movement in the Church. Peter’s father was reluctant to let him leave and join this new movement, but in the end he consented. During his formation Peter was sent to Majorca, where he was befriended by the college doorkeeper, Alphonsus Rodriguez. Alphonsus was a retired businessman who had joined the Jesuits when his wife had died. In conversations with Peter, Alphonsus suggested that the young man go to the West Indies to preach the gospel. Fired up by Alphonsus, Peter offered himself for the work of mission. However, now was not the moment in God’s plan for him to go. Two years later he again asked his superiors and at last was sent. Peter was not yet a priest, but in God’s time he would be ordained on the mission. Peter Claver saw Spain for the last time in April 1610. He sailed for Cartagena, in what is now Colombia.
“To love God as He ought to be loved, we must be detached from all temporal love. We must love nothing but Him, or if we love anything else, we must love it only for His sake.” Peter Claver After his arrival Peter was sent to the Jesuit house in Bogotá to complete his studies and was ordained in Cartagena in 1615. It was in this bustling port with its hot and humid weather that he spent most of his life. Situated near tropical swamps, the area was blighted by fever transported by swamp insects. One of the chief reasons for Cartagena’s importance was its major role in the transportation of slaves. Peter was to be God’s instrument at a period when the inhuman trafficking in slaves was rapidly expanding. To provide cheap labour in the newly discovered Americas, various European countries were shipping thousands of Negro slaves from West Africa to the Americas. Slaves were sold in Cartagena for fifty times the price they were bought for in Africa. The voyage from Africa lasted two months, with a third of the slaves dying on the journey. When he made his final vows Peter added one of his own: to be for life the slave of the Negro slaves who arrived in their thousands in awful conditions on slave ships from Africa.
Every day Peter began his day with a period of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. The young priest knew that he had to be rooted in regular prayer and the practice of self-denial, so that he could give himself entirely to those God had called him to serve. Sometimes Peter wouldn’t wait for the slaves to be unloaded but would go by canoe out to the ships, boarding and quickly descending to the stinking holds in which the slaves had been imprisoned on their crossing. Peter brought them medicine, food and clothing, for ‘We must speak to them with our hands, before we try to speak to them with our lips.’
‘Until death I consecrate myself to God’s service, doing it, as if I were a slave’ St Peter Claver Peter’s first care when a ship arrived was for the sick. He personally dressed their sores, often throwing his cloak over the most revolting wounds to preserve their dignity. But most of all, Peter brought them to God, calling them to convert their hearts and lives to him. When he visited the slaves on their ships and in the sheds they were kept in before being moved on, he brought holy pictures to instruct them in Christ’s death and the other truths of the faith. He explained to them that God loved them more than man abused them. Most of the slaves Peter met in his nearly forty years of mission were not Christian and had never met a Christian or heard the Good News. With great patience Peter taught them simple prayers. This was slow work, as it was something completely new to the slaves, who were often overwhelmed by the suffering they were immersed in. So unused were they to the Christian message and so burdened by their sufferings that at baptism each group of ten were given the same name – simply to help them remember it.
While Peter waited for slave ships to arrive he toured the town begging for food and comforts such as biscuits, brandy, tobacco and lemons for the slaves. The slave-traders despised Peter: his mission often inconvenienced their plans and his love and compassion showed up their treatment of the slaves for what it was.
After the slaves had been sold and moved on from the slave pens in the docks of Cartagena, Peter did all he could to keep contact with them to sustain their faith. Each Easter he would visit the plantations or mines that used the slaves to revive the faith he had planted in their hearts. Those who had been helped by Peter were filled with joy when they saw him again. When not visiting slaves, Peter would often be found in the city square preaching to anyone who would listen. In his nearly forty years of mission Peter taught, baptized and nursed no fewer than 300,000 slaves.
“We must speak to them with our hands, before we try to speak to them with our lips.” St Peter Claver One day he returned from his work, incredibly weak: God’s call to his kingdom was getting louder. For the last four years of his life, paralysed, in constant pain and confined to bed, he was assigned one of the slaves, Manuel, to look after him. Manuel did not look after him well. Some days he didn’t leave Peter food and whilst dressing him would sometimes push him. On one occasion Peter was heard saying about his treatment by Manuel, ‘My sins deserve more punishment than this.’ Peter died quietly, on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for whom he had a great love. Crowds attended the funeral to bid their farewell to Peter Claver. In 1888, Pope Leo XIII canonized him as someone who lived the Gospels in a heroic way.
Though Peter Claver is no longer with us in body, he is amongst the communion of saints in heaven continuing his work and interceding for all those who suffer. His intercession and inspiration are with all those who visit ships in the name of Christ and his Church through the Apostleship of the Sea (AoS); those who try to speak to seafarers with their actions, with practical support, before they try to speak to them of Christ. Peter lives on in all those AoS Port Chaplains and ship visitors who ask God to help them reach out to those in need of friendship and material support, and above all the gift of the sacraments and the gospel. The spirit of Peter manifests itself too in those generous individuals who give of their time, prayer and money to support the Apostleship of the Sea in its care for seafarers.
Peter Claver is today alongside all those whose lives at sea are slavery; those whose wages are withheld; those who are ill-treated by others on their ships; those whose poverty in their country forces them to sea to support their families.
To enable AoS to continue its vital work, donations can be made either by post to: AoS, Herald House, Lamb’s Passage, London EC1Y 8LE or online at
St Peter Claver, pray for us.
Key dates in the life of St Peter Claver
Feast day: 9 September