Saint Peter Claver: Slave of the Slaves

Yesterday was the feast day of one of my favorite saints, the Jesuit missioner Peter Claver. His heroic acts of charity with the Negroes of Colombia, South America, surely have no equal in the annals of hagiography. I have excerpted a section of his biography from our website; the piece graphically demonstrates the zeal of a man on fire for the salvation of his people. Unlike Saint Francis Xavier his fellow Jesuit, Claver stayed in one place, Cartegena, Colombia, whereas Xavier traveled all over the East. Here it is:

Cartagena was hit with five major epidemics during Claver’s apostleship (1615-1654). The major contagion was smallpox; but others. Like typhoid, dysentery, scurvy, and incurable ulcers and cancers wreaked havoc, especially among the undernourished blacks. It was during these scourges that the holy man’s heroic charity was such a spectacle for even the angels to behold.

Six abandoned pagans from Biafara were lying in a shed, suffering from violent dysentery. Someone told the saint about their plight. Immediately he set out to help them, taking with him a free Negress named Magdalena, who used to collect alms in the city for the saint to distribute. She also happened to be from Biafara and Claver needed her as a translator. Arriving at the shack where the men lay writing in the mud, the gentle doctor lifted them up one by one onto some dry mats. His hands and clothing were instantly covered with infectious filth. Moreover, the weather was hot, the stench so unbearable in the stuffy hut, and the sight so repulsive that the Negress took flight. In despair over not being able to speak to the sick men, the frustrated priest called after her loudly, “Magdalena, Magdalena, in the Name of God come back; these are or brothers, redeemed by the Blood of Jesus Christ.” At these words the woman sighed a prayer for help and courageously returned.

Claver’s reputation for enduring the unendurable prompted many a curious admirer to accompany him on his visitations to see for themselves if what they had heard of him was true. They saw and they believed. One priest who loved Father Claver dearly and who longed to have his charity went with him to tend a poor afflicted slave.  The priest watched as the saint caressed the ulcerous patient like a mother, and then put his lips to the most pestiferous of his sores. Overcome with nausea, the admiring priest had to leave the room, but despite his own weakness, he never ceased praising the heroic virtue of Claver, publicizing it even in Rome.

The saint’s searches for the sick and the abandoned took him frequently to the beaches, where occasionally, some poor aged or hopelessly maimed Negro would be dumped off by a heartless master to die. Here he would find them some kind of shelter and nurse them, bringing them food and medicine. Many of these castaways seemed to be miraculously sustained while waiting for Father Claver to find them, and baptize or confess them before they should die. For fourteen years the man of God served one such helpless old man, visiting him three or four times a week and bringing him food and consolation, until at last he passed away in the blessed arms of his benefactor.