By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – What better way to observe the feast of St. Peter Claver, the patron saint for Black missions, than inviting and honoring modern day laborers in that apostolate to the celebration?

Every seat was filled Sept. 9 at Philadelphia’s former St. Peter Claver Church, which is now part of the St. Peter Claver Evangelization Center, for the annual Mass.

Retired Auxiliary Bishop of New Orleans Dominic Carmon was the celebrant.

In his homily Bishop Carmon spoke on the life of St. Peter Claver, the 16th-century Spanish Jesuit who is credited with catechizing and baptizing 300,000 African slaves in Cartegena, Colombia, which was then the world center for the slave trade. He urged the congregation to follow the saint’s example by being evangelizers themselves.

Bishop Carmon is an evangelizer in his own right. Born in Opelousas, La., as a young Society of the spanine Word priest he was a missionary in New Guinea in the 1960s, then served as pastor of two mostly African-American parishes in Chicago, and finally served as Auxiliary Bishop for New Orleans before his 1996 retirement.

The grand old church – which served Philadelphia’s first Black parish, founded in 1886 and closed in 1985 – is still used for evangelization purposes, retreats and special Masses, according to Father Stephen Thorne, director of the archdiocesan Office for Black Catholics.

The historic church has just been newly painted. “It was absolutely wonderful to see it looking so beautiful,” Father Thorne said.

“We recognized religious sisters and brothers – Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart, Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of St. Joseph, Christian Brothers, Norbertines, Franciscans and others,” Father Thorne said.

“Peter Claver was a Jesuit and there is a nice connection,” Father Thorne said. “Their motto is Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (For the Greater glory of God)” and everything we do is for God’s glory. It is always about God, not us.”

Blessed Sacrament Sister Roland Lagarde, who lectored for the liturgy, is also from Louisiana. As very young child in New Orleans she met Mother, now St., Katharine Drexel, the foundress of her congregation. The saint was affectionately known in Louisiana’s black community as “Le Bonne Mere” (“The Good Mother”)

Sister Roland’s own mother was an early graduate of what is now Xavier University of Louisiana, but was then a school where young black women were educated then sent out in pairs to establish rural schools for black children in segregated rural Louisiana.

“The homily was excellent, and Bishop Carmon asked us to do what St. Peter Claver did,” Sister Roland said. “The choir was excellent; the whole Mass was very well organized.”

In addition to the men and women religious and the diocesan priests in African-American ministry in attendance, recognition was also given to the almost entirely African-American Knights of Peter Claver and their women’s auxiliary, also present in large numbers.

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