By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — There is an international Catholic order of men, women and young people committed to their faith, their parish and the broader community around them. In one sense, the organization is one of several with similar goals and attributes; in others, the Knights of Peter Claver stand out in the crowd.
The Order was founded Nov. 7, 1909 by four Josephite priests and three laymen in Mobile, Al., to provide Catholic black men with the fraternal and beneficial aspects of a secret society, while offering numerous opportunities to demonstrate their faith, evangelize, perform corporal works of mercy and educate youth. Today the Order is open to all Catholics.
It is named for St. Peter Claver, a 17th century Spanish Jesuit who ministered to African slaves in Cartagena, now modern day Colombia, South America. Peter Claver, who died in 1654, is credited with baptizing more than 300,000 slaves. The self-titled, “slave of the slaves, forever,” who spent 33 years caring for the oppressed people in Cartagena, treating them with dignity and bringing them to Christ, is celebrated today by members of the Order founded in his honor.
Annually on the Sunday nearest his feast day, Sept. 9, the Knights’ Councils, Ladies Auxiliaries’ Courts and junior divisions of Peter Claver nationwide gather to celebrate St. Peter Claver Day. Locally, St. Peter Claver Day, held Sept. 9 this year, was at St. Monica Catholic Church (Council and Court # 57) in Kansas City, with Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert W. Finn, himself a Knight of Peter Claver. Joining the “Clavers” of St. Monica’s Parish were members of the Order from St. Louis Parish (Council and Court #265) and Our Lady and St. Rose Parish (Council and Court # 61) in Kansas City, Kan., as well as several Knights of Columbus.
In his homily, Bishop Finn said, “Often we should ask ourselves and reflect in our hearts, ‘What has God done? What in my life is a gift I must not take for granted? What are the signs and pledges of His love for me?’ And we must speak. We have to be ready to proclaim.”
The bishop continued, saying, “The Church proclaims and celebrates today the work and love and power of God in a man, Peter Claver, who lived 400 years ago. The record of his kindness and Christ-like love is so strong that we recall him and call him today our patron and friend.”
Rather than hold the annual Peter Claver Day at one church only, “We rotate the celebration among our councils and courts,” said Barbara Bailey, Central States Conference President for the Ladies Auxiliaries, a member of the Father Joyce Finnegan Court #61 and a parishioner of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Kansas City, Kan. Each year there is a social justice or corporal works of mercy project in connection with Peter Claver Day. This year the Councils and Courts collaborated in taking and serving a meal to the residents of the Women’s Rescue Mission’s three transitional housing facilities, Joshua’s Place, Princess House and Isaiah’s Place. They also collected and donated clothing suitable for job interviews to the Women’s Rescue Mission.
Throughout the United States and in Colombia, there are 298 Knights Councils, 312 Ladies Courts and for young people between the ages of 7 and 18, there are 123 Junior Knights Councils and 208 Junior Daughters Courts. The two Kansas Cities are part of the seven-state Central States District, which includes Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky. Missouri and Kansas courts and councils share a lot of activities, such as Peter Claver Day and district events. The Kansas City Councils at Our Lady and St. Rose, St. Monica and St. Louis parishes comprise the Metro District Council, which was established in 1998 and straddles the state line.
“It really is a family organization,” Bailey said, “fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren,” all get involved.
Modeled after the Knights of Columbus, in its divisions and degrees, the Knights of Peter Claver and its Ladies Auxiliary is the largest and oldest, predominantly African-American lay Catholic organization. The national leader of the Knights of Peter Claver is the Supreme Knight while the Supreme Lady heads the Ladies Auxiliaries nationwide.
The Sublimed and Meritorious Fourth Degree was first organized in 1917. This division is open to Knights who, after two years of continual membership, have proven themselves to be active workers in the Church, the community, and the Knights of Peter Claver. Fourth Degree Knights are addressed as “Sir Knight.”
A similar Fourth Degree, the Ladies of Grace, was established in 1979 for the Ladies Auxiliary. Ladies of Grace are addressed as “Gracious Lady.”
The Ladies Auxiliary was authorized and its constitution accepted in Opelousas, La., in August, 1922. It was recognized as a division of the National Council four years later.
Bailey said, “You can’t have a Ladies Court without a Knights Council. That’s the organizational structure.”
The Junior Knights were authorized in 1917 and established in 1935 as a division of the National Council. The Junior Daughters division was established in 1930.
The Order’s web site says that when the Ladies Auxiliary was established in 1926, “a tree was planted that has now grown into a forest of approximately 11,000 Ladies.”
“There are a lot of branches on the tree,” Bailey said. Six representatives of the Ladies Auxiliary spoke with The Catholic Key Sept. 27: Rita Womack, Grand Lady, Court #57; Dianne Huff, Area Deputy and Grand Lady, Court #265; Ramonda Doakes, Junior Daughter Council and Court representative Court #57; Barbara Bailey and Metro Council co-chair Paula Nix, Court #57; Sharon Sanders, District Treasurer, and Beverly Friday, Metro Council representative, both parishioners at St. Therese Little Flower Parish.
The Peter Claver Knights Councils are numbered chronologically depending on their date of establishment. Councils and Courts (Ladies Auxiliaries) are named in honor of saints, founders, past members and chaplains.
Catechesis is part of the lifeblood of membership in the Knights of Peter Claver. Deacon Ken Greene, a Fourth Degree Knight of Peter Claver, serves as Grand Knight of Council #57. “Each branch (council) identifies its focus,” he said. “The primary focus of Council #57 is youth. Getting them involved in corporal works of mercy projects, helping them discover what they know and don’t know about their Catholic faith, then helping them learn more about it. We used the Baltimore Catechism format in a Catechism Jeopardy game to get an idea of what our young people know about being Catholic. We found out they know and understood about a third of it. We want to help them learn more about their faith because strong Catholics know about Catholicism.”
Deacon Greene said Council #57, like many other councils, is trying to build a stronger youth base, which will evolve into stronger Emerging Leaders, young people ages 18-35. He added that the focus of the senior division is more on social justice projects, education of the youth, corporal works of mercy and socialization.
Originally, the Clavers were founded because African-American men didn’t have an outlet for socialization with others of their faith. At the time, more than a century ago, other Catholic fraternal groups were not open to black men, he said.
Council and Court #57 has about 35 men, 50-55 women, 12 boys and 15-20 girls in its four divisions, Deacon Greene said.
The Junior Branches came about through the need for education and support, and to help young people give service to God, their community and the Church, Deacon Greene said.
Membership in the Junior Division is comprised of Catholic boys, girls and teenagers ages 7-18, who have made their first Holy Communion. Both Junior Knights and Junior Daughters complete an application which is voted on by the junior branch they apply to join. Each individual court and council works with their junior branches, giving support, instruction and assistance to young members.
Once initiated into the Junior Division, members participate in programs and activities designed to keep them interested and motivated. They refresh their knowledge and learn more about their Catholic faith, and participate in community service activities to bring that faith to others, especially those in need.
Education is valued and the young people strive for academic success, most with college in mind. Academic achievement workshops help them succeed in school and funds can be earned toward secondary educational expenses through scholarships and by working at health fairs, conferences and conventions. The Order charitably supports many national organizations such as the NAACP, the United Negro College Fund, Xavier University in New Orleans and Catholic elementary and secondary schools nationwide.
Junior Knights and Daughters learn how to interact with others socially as ladies and gentlemen. Physical health is important to the junior divisions, and sports and fitness programs are offered to improve and maintain that health. They also participate in fund raising to support their programs and activities.
In addition, Junior Knights also have opportunities to attend the National Black Catholic Men’s conference.
Imani Lewis-Hill, 17, has been involved in the Knights of St. Peter Claver Junior Division for nine years. She said she was attracted to the organization because her late grandmother was very involved in church.
“Being a Junior Daughter has enlivened my faith,” she said, “by showing me what is right from wrong. With all that is going on in society, I just look to the Lord to see me through and do the best I can to live through faith.”
Through Days of Reflection and other spiritual programs and activities, Junior Division members receive religious instruction to supplement what they receive in church, school or at home. Imani recalled, “Recently I was involved in a game of Jeopardy that involved questions about Catholic faith and Claverism that enlightened my faith and reminded me of what I learned when I made my First Communion. It re-opened my eyes to what I never forgot but needed a refresher on in my faith and what being Catholic really means.”
Christopher Battle is the Junior Knight Commander of Benjamin Givens-Walter Allen Council #57 at St. Monica Parish. A Junior Knight Commander is elected to serve a 1-year term, and is responsible for his branch’s monthly meetings and activity reports.
Chris said he was attracted to the Junior Knights because “it looked fun. I wanted to do something in church that was of interest to me.”
The catechetical programs and activities he participates in have made an impact on him. “Membership in the Junior Knights has made me grow as a man and really think about my faith. I have learned more about young people of faith.” Chris has also learned to ask questions about his faith to better understand what being Catholic means. “I find myself looking deeper into the biblical readings,” he said.
As Bishop Finn had remarked in his homily for Peter Claver Day, St. Peter Claver went among the slaves “as a priest and a care-giver, an angel of mercy who treated them as any of their lost, left-far-behind family members would have wanted to do. Their sickness and starvation did not repulse Peter. He worked hard to being them food, perhaps some medicine. There is a story that he used to wrap them in his Jesuit cloak.”
Today, some of the Corporal Works of Mercy — feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; visit the sick; visit those in prison, and bury the dead — have been incorporated into many of the projects the youth work on, especially feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.
Much like their elders, the juniors collected donations of clothing, personal care items and cash for victims of Hurricane Katrina. They also assemble and serve sandwiches for Catholic Charities’ Morning Glory Café, near the Cathedral downtown.
“I have participated in feeding the homeless,” Imani said, “and helping young children better their reading. Doing this made me feel as if I was doing something right and helping those less fortunate.”
Chris also “participated in feeding the homeless. It made me feel good seeing all those people happy and enjoying themselves. It is something that so many of us take for granted.”
For Peter Claver Day, the Junior Daughters were dressed all in white, the Junior Knights in white shirts, black slacks and ties. But dressing up is not limited to liturgies and parish activities. Through the experiences of dances, cotillions, skating parties, ice-cream socials, bowling parties, parades and a Christmas Tea, the young people learn to cultivate social graces, develop poise and self-confidence in social situations and enjoy the companionship of others in wholesome surroundings.
The young girls and women enjoy getting dressed up for the Christmas Tea, Rita Womack said. “We are helped out by the Gown Gallery for the Christmas Tea, and the girls all look so beautiful and so excited to be there.”
Councils and Courts also work with their Junior Divisions to help the kids develop more profitable uses of their leisure time by cultivating tastes and interests besides cell phones and video games — interests that aid in developing an appreciation of their duties as Catholics and as citizens. This past month local Junior Daughters and Junior Knights participated in the national Brown Bag Project to feed the hungry. The Junior Knights and Daughters made sandwiches and packed them in brown bags together with chips and fruit or cookies and delivered them to the City Union Mission. And the young people didn’t just deliver and depart; they stayed with the homeless at the mission and enjoyed eating and chatting with them.
At age 18, a Junior Knight or Daughter can apply to transition to the Senior Division through “Emerging Leaders,” the young adults in the Senior Division.
Imani and Chris plan to do just that. Imani said she has no intention of quitting the Clavers when she goes to college and beyond. “I just don’t want to stop because I’m older; I want to continue because my grandmother would want me to. I want to stay the best young lady and grow into a faith bond woman, continuing with (my) beliefs no matter my situations through life as I get older.”
Chris agreed. “I am excited about my future college-bound experience and hope to stay involved in the Knights of Peter Claver.”
Dianne Huff praised the Junior Knights and Daughters of Council and Court #57. “Membership in the Junior Division changes boys and girls,” she said. Learning about their faith and their community, doing corporal works of mercy, instills in young people “much more respect for the Church and for adults.”
Knights Councils and Ladies Courts nationwide are working on new ways to attract and retain youth membership who will grow into Emerging Leaders. For many families in Kansas City, on both sides of the state line, membership in the Clavers is a family tradition — fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren.
The Clavers are a vibrant, great big family, the Ladies of Courts #57, 61 and 265 all agreed. “We grew up in our parishes. No matter where we live now, it seems right to go back and go to Mass at our home church. It’s a homecoming, every Sunday.”
Rita Womack, of Court #57, summed it up. “There’s a lot of history in the Clavers. We hope it continues on, the Knights and Ladies working together and with the junior divisions. It’s a collaboration that brings hope, cheer and faith to all it touches.”