By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – Just as today there are many seemingly intelligent people who believe the unborn are less than human, in the early 17th century there were many seemingly intelligent people who believed native Africans were less than human, and fair game for slavery and cruel exploitation.

An exception was St. Peter Claver, a Jesuit priest in Cartagena, Colombia, which was then the New World’s principal slave trading port. He and a few companions would go down to meet the ships, which brought about 1,000 slaves to the city every month, many of them sick or dying from the hardship of the ocean crossing.

They would administer the corporal works of mercy – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, ministering to the sick, and yes, burying the dead, of which there were many.

Peter Claver would also bring the great gift of the faith to these unfortunates, preaching the Gospel and baptizing them into new life.

Philadelphia’s African American Catholic community just marked St. Peter Claver’s Sept. 9 feast day through a Sept. 3-5 triduum of prayer at the St. Peter Claver Center for Evangelization, followed by a Sept. 6 Mass celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Joseph R. Cistone.

“This is holy ground,” said Father George B. Moore, who preached at the Sept. 5 service. He reminded the congregation the center is located at the former St. Peter Claver Church, which was Philadelphia’s first Black Catholic parish.

St. Peter Claver was “the servant of the slaves” and “the work he did was not wanted or appreciated by the society of his day,” Father Moore noted. “One of his dreams was to restore identity to those who had been taken from their families and their homes and to let them know they were precious in the eyes of God.”

The people who took time on a sultry September night to come to the service were of like mind.

Linda Love, of St. Cyprian Parish, sees St. Peter Claver’s ministry as a work of love. “You don’t have to concern yourself with the way things are. In God you can make things the way they ought to be,” she said.

Keith White, the administrator and director of the Center, sees its patron saint as a man who gave Africans the opportunity to come into the universal Church in his time.

“He allowed us to be part of the Church, and to me he symbolizes what we ought to be,” White said.

Joan Munkanta, also of St. Cyprian Parish, believes St. Peter Claver symbolizes “the possibility of loving and caring no matter what, and seeing the value of all human beings, no matter what their condition.”

Father Stephen Thorne, director of the archdiocesan Office for Black Catholics, quotes the words of Jesus, “What you do for the least of My brethren you do for Me.” Peter Claver “did that to perfection,” he said.

“He served and loved those who were the least in the Church and the world. He is a model for everyone who loves and cares for African- Americans.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.

Cardinal Rigali, Archbishop Gregory to speak at scholarship banquet

Cardinal Justin Rigali will be guest speaker and Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta will be keynote speaker at the Msgr. Mitchell Scholarship Fund Banquet to be held Nov. 2 at the Hilton Hotel on City Line Avenue. The event was announced Sept. 6 at a press conference held at the St. Peter Claver Center for Evangelization.

The late Msgr. Mitchell was a former pastor of St. Ignatius Parish and St. Francis de Sales Parish, as well as the founder of St. Ignatius Nursing Home. The scholarship fund, which will benefit African-American high school students, honors Msgr. Mitchell for his many years of ministry to Philadelphia’s African-American community.

Archbishop Gregory, the former president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, is the only African-American archbishop in the United States.

Scholarship recipients will be Tianna Drummond, Archbishop Carroll High School; Marquis Hudson, Roman Catholic High School; Tyron Stinson, West Catholic High School and Wallace Weaver, Bishop McDevitt High School.

Honorees at the banquet will be benefactors Michael O’Neill and the late Dolores Cornelius as well as pediatrician Dr. Phyllis Dennery-Mundy and educator Dolores Spoonhour. NBC Channel 10 news anchor John Blunt will be master of ceremonies.