St Peter Claver was a Spanish Jesuit who gave his life in service to slaves in Columbia in Latin America. He was born in 1580 into a noble but not well-off family in Verdu in Spain and studied in Barcelona. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1601. When he studying philosophy in the Jesuit college in Majorca, Claver was encouraged by the saintly Brother Alphonsus Rodriguez to go to the new missions in America and save “millions of perishing souls.” In 1610 he landed in Cartagena, Columbia and, after completing his studies in Bogotá, he was ordained in 1616.
Cartagena was one of two ports where slaves from Africa arrived to be sold in South America. For 33 years, from 1616 to 1650, Peter Claver worked daily to minister to the needs of the 10,000 slaves who arrived each year.
When a ship arrived, Peter first begged for fruits, biscuits, or sweets to bring to the slaves. He then went on board with translators to bring his gifts as well as his skills as a doctor and teacher. Claver entered the holds of the ships and would not leave until every person received a measure of care. Peter gave short instruction in the Catholic faith and baptized as many as he could. In this way he could prevail on the slave owners to give humane treatment to fellow Christians.
He was accused of being overzealous, and of having profaned the Sacraments by giving them to creatures who scarcely possessed a soul. The fashionable women of Cartagena refused to enter the churches where Father Claver assembled the slaves. His superiors were often influenced by his critics and some tried to curtail his activities. By 1651 he had baptized more than 300,000, when he at last became weakened by the plague.
In the last years of his life Peter was too ill to leave his room and he was poorly cared for. Claver never complained. He was convinced that he deserved this treatment.
When Cartagenians heard that Peter Claver was dying, they crowded into his room to see him for the last time. They treated Peter Claver’s room as a shrine, and stripped it of everything but his bedclothes for mementos. He died on 8 September 1654.