On Nov. 7, the world’s oldest and largest historically African American Catholic lay organization celebrated 100 years of service to God and his people. The Knights of Peter Claver was founded Nov. 7, 1909 in Mobile, Ala., by four Josephite priests and three lay men. During this time in U.S. history, people of African descent were not allowed to join existing fraternal Catholic organizations. According to the Josephite Colored Harvest from March 1910, “the initiation of the first band of 40 colored men … is undoubtedly the most important movement for colored Catholics that has taken place in many a day.”
In addition to lay persons, the membership also includes members of religious communities, priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals throughout the United States. Cardinal William H. Keeler , Archbishop emeritus of Baltimore and the Father Edward Chiffriller, major superior of the Josephites, are fourth degree members of the Knights of Peter Claver.
The Knights of Peter Claver’s primary purpose is to render service to God and his holy church, render aid and assistance to the sick and disabled, and promote social and intellectual association among its members.
St. Peter Claver, a Jesuit priest born in Spain, is not only the namesake but also the role model for the Knights of Peter Claver. Known for his tireless efforts to minister to the Africans brought to the port city of Cartagena as slaves, St. Peter Claver described himself as: “the slave of the black slave forever.” He spent most of his adult life serving the poor, sick and disenfranchised.
The many activities and programs of the national organization include: charitable outreach, providing scholarships, a tutorial program, funds to victims of sickle-cell anemia, donations for the construction of Our Mother of Africa Chapel in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the United Negro College Fund, support for vocations programs and social justice advocacy.
The Knights of Peter Claver consists of six divisions: Knights of Peter Claver, Knights of Peter Claver Ladies Auxiliary, Junior Knights, Junior Daughters, fourth-degree Knights and Ladies of Grace. The Knights of Peter Claver initially took root in the southern dioceses of the country; however, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has a long history with the Knights of Peter Claver. Two of the organization’s oldest units were established in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The Knights’ Council 62, St. Benedict de Moor, was established in 1929 and the Ladies’ Court 62, Our Lady of Good Counsel, was established nine years later in 1938. These units continue to respond to the call to serve under the leadership of Grand Knight Michael Marshall and Grand Lady Lillian Humphries.
In 1991, Council 323, Father Charles Uncles and Court 323, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange were established. Two years later, further expansion resulted in the establishment of Court 331, St. Ann and Council 331, Schwind-Lupico. Grand Knight Cleveland Cosom, Grand Lady Claudia Waters and Grand Lady Michelly Merrick serve in leadership roles in these units.
In addition to supporting the organization’s activities and programs on the district and national levels, these local units also contribute to and support the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the Society of the Sacred Heart of St. Joseph (Josephites), Missionaries of Charity, provide scholarships for Catholic education, My Sister’s Place, and nursing home and hospice programs.
Knights of Peter Claver members embody the Claver values of friendship, unity and Christian charity through their support of their local parishes. Members of this organization are involved in all aspects of parish life: pastoral councils, finance committees, St. Vincent DePaul, soup kitchens, liturgical ministers, bereavement committees, choir members and as catechists.
Here’s to the Knights of Peter Claver, 100 years and counting.
Michelly B. Merrick is a parishioner of St. Francis Xavier in Baltimore. She is the human resources director for the Archdiocese of Baltimore and Grand Lady of Court 323.