On June 26, 1580, Peter Claver was born in the village of Verdú in Catalonia, Spain, to a family of successful farmers. At thirteen he expressed the desire to become a priest; three years later, he was sent to Barcelona to study and there he met the Jesuits. Peter entered the Jesuit novitiate when he was twenty-two.
After he made vows in 1604, Peter was sent to study philosophy in Palma, Majorca, and there he met Alphonsus Rodriguez, then 72 years old. They two became good friends, and enjoyed spiritual conversations which often included the work of Jesuit missionaries in America.
In 1608, Claver was sent to Barcelona for theology studies. Two years later he was sent to America and landed in Cartagena, Colombia in mid-summer. He completed his theology studies in Bogota, Colombia. On March 19, 1616, Peter Claver was the first Jesuit to be ordained in Cartagena, and that city remained the center of his apostolic activity.
In the early seventeenth century, 10,000 slaves passed through the port of Cartagena each year. The experience of these people was indeed horrible; a "successful voyage" meant that only about one-third of the slaves had died on route from Africa. Peter's response was to go through Cartagena begging fruit, biscuits and sweets for them. He would go through the hold of the slave ships, embracing each slave and giving particular attention to those who were sick. His manner was described as one of tenderness and unwearied delicacy." Every day, he would visit the new arrivals in the sheds near the docks where they were held before being transported to farms and ranches. Then he would go out to those same farms and ranches and prepare these Negroes for baptism. The baptisms were carried out in elaborate public rituals and each of the newly baptized received from Peter a medal engraved with the names of Jesus and Mary. He told a fellow Jesuit that he had baptized "a little over 300,000."
When there were no slave ships in port, Peter visited the general hospital, the hospital for lepers and the prison for foreigners. He also travelled through "the pathless mountains" to visit those he had baptized.
These were his ministries for almost forty years, during which he ate only coarse bread and dried potatoes, and practiced other austerities. All the while "he was one of the most radiant examples of the absolute and constant abnegation of apostolic charity which Saint Ignatius had dreamed of for his sons."
In 1650, Peter contracted the plague, and though he was helpless and dependent for the last four years of his life, he never complained about the abusive treatment he received from the man hired to care for him. He was conscious until the day before his death on September 8, 1654.
Peter Claver was beatified by Pope Pius IX on July 16, 1850, and canonized along with his mentor Alphonsus Rodriguez by Pope Leo XIII on January 15, 1888.
Sources: Tylenda, deGuibert, Corley