Black Catholics gather for annual St. Peter Claver Mass

By Arlene Edmonds
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – The Knights of Peter Claver stood outside St. Peter Claver Center for Evangelization in South Philadelphia on a recent rainy Wednesday evening. Adorned in their signature feathered headpieces, they set a regal tone for the celebration of Mass on their founder’s feast day.

The Ladies Auxiliary wore white suits and white cone-shaped hats or lace as they, too, lined up for the procession as the hymn “I Just Came to Praise the Lord” resonated.

Historic St. Peter Claver Church at 12th and Lombard streets welcomed Catholics from throughout the Archdiocese Sept. 9 as they came together to commemorate St. Peter Claver’s ministry to African-American slaves. Auxiliary Bishop Robert P. Maginnis was the principal celebrant for the Mass.

“I’ve been coming to this Mass for many years now because this is a special occasion,” said Sylvia Royster, executive director of the Martin De Porres Foundation. “For black Catholics this is our home church. This place is where it all began for us in this city, so we are proud to come here for this Mass. I feel like when I step in here I am stepping on holy ground. That’s why I’ve been coming every year since I converted.”

For Mel Nichols of St. Athanasius Parish in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia, this year’s Mass took on special significance. He has been a Knight of Peter Claver Council 342 since 1995. Yet he was quick to point out that this year the group is celebrating its centennial anniversary.

“I am proud that the Knights of Peter Claver organization is now 100 years old,” Nichols said. “I joined this organization 15 years ago because this is part of our history. This is a group that is for black Catholics, but is open to everyone.”

“I wanted to be here to experience the rich heritage of this event,” said Shirley Morell-Calton, who recently moved to the Philadelphia area from Georgia and joined St. John the Evangelist Parish in Center City. “Where I am from all the Catholics are African-American. When I came to Philadelphia people told me that black Catholics are the minority. So being at this Mass for the first time is like being at home.”

The Mass opened with remarks from Father Stephen D. Thorne, executive director of the archdiocesan Office for Black Catholics. “We are blessed with so much tonight,” said Father Thorne, “and we welcome all the priests who have served the African-American community.”

In his homily that earned a standing ovation, Msgr. Wilfred Pashley, pastor of St. Rose of Lima and St. Barbara parishes in Philadelphia, shared many memories from serving in predominantly African-American communities.

He drew spontaneous applause when he named inspaniduals who played pivotal roles in black parishes in the past. He also mentioned Philadelphia parishes where African-American Catholics worshipped that no longer exist.

“As the neighborhoods changed some parishes became predominantly colored parishes,” said Msgr. Pashley. “The Holy Ghost priests served most of these parishes. It was in 1961 that we began to serve the African-American population. I was at St. Elizabeth in North Philadelphia. It was a blessing to be there.

“Please continue to enrich our Church with your gift of Blackness. Then we will always be in our parishes with holy priests meeting the needs of a blessed and holy people.”

Arlene Edmonds is a freelance writer and St. Raymond of Penafort parishioner. She may be reached at