Advertisements ad

November 22, 2009

Claver Knights turn 100

By Patrick Butler


On Nov. 7, Chicago’s newest Knights of Peter Claver were initiated in a special ceremony at Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica exactly 100 years to the day since America’s first fraternal organization for black Catholics was founded in Mobile, Ala., by four Josephite priests and three laymen. It had 40 initial members.

“There weren’t many black Catholics [in the United States at the time], but there were enough to necessitate some kind of organization for black Catholic men for spiritual direction and charitable activity. Unfortunately, African-Americans weren’t all that welcome in organizations like the Knights of Columbus,” said Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry. Bishop Perry is also the Knights of Peter Claver’s national chaplain.

“The Knights of Columbus have since turned that around, but back in those days, some of those social restrictions extended even to the church, unfortunately,” he said.

Bishop Perry joined Cardinal George and Chicago native Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta this past summer at the Knights centennial celebration in New Orleans.

During closing remarks at the convention’s Mass, Archbishop Gregory said the Knights’ founders would be amazed at how the country has changed in the past century.

“They would be pleased with their vision to love the church and the nation, even when they were not loved in return,” Gregory said.

Rooted with a saint

Named for a 17th century Spanish Jesuit priest who for 43 years ministered to black slaves in what is now Cartegena, Columbia, the Knights of Peter Claver has about 18,000 members in more than 400 parishes in more than 58 dioceses in the U.S. and Latin America.

A Ladies Auxiliary, along with two youth organizations — the Junior Knights and Junior Daughters — were added in 1922.

St. Peter Claver died in 1654, was buried under glass at the high altar at Cartegena Cathedral, and was canonized by Pope Leo XIII in 1888.

The order has held five national conventions in Chicago, most recently in 1995. For some in Chicago, such events have been the first exposure to black Catholicism, even among blacks.

“I think the interest has always been there. But we’ve always been viewed as a very small, convert-constituent group unlike other groups like the Italians, Poles, Irish — Europeans who grew up with the faith,” said Bishop Perry.

“The theme of black Catholicism has been a question of recognizing where blacks could fit in and be appreciated for our talents.”

What they do

Like the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of Peter Claver wear swords, sashes, capes and “admiral’s hats,” offer life insurance and death benefits programs and engage in charitable activities, said Diane Asberry, national counselor of the Junior Daughters organization and a member of the archdiocese’s St. Felicitas/St. Ailbe Court women’s auxiliary Court 181.

Asberry, a retired Chicago public school teacher, said she joined the organization 18 years ago after her two daughters joined the Knights’ youth program and “told me that if I wanted to know what was going on, I’d have to join too. So I did,” she said.

In addition to their court and council activities, knights and ladies of Peter Claver also serve as liturgical ministers, she said, noting that in every one of the more than 20 Chicago parishes with a St. Peter Claver presence, knights and ladies are members of other organizations as well.

Long-time council

One of the oldest Knights of Peter Claver Councils is based at Holy Family Parish and has only about a dozen members now, but is making a comeback. In fact, two of the Nov. 7 inductees are from Holy Family, said Grand Knight Odell Gordon, who joined the Knights after learning about them as a parish council member.

“I liked what I saw,” said Gordon, noting how the small chapter does everything from pancake fundraisers to “providing security, like when a vagrant wanders into church during Mass,” mentoring the junior knights and daughters, and running clothing drives.

Easily the chapter’s best-known member is Cardinal Francis George himself, who joined several years ago, said Gordon.

“Most people don’t realize you don’t have to be Afro-American to join,” said Gordon. “Probably half our members right now are caucasian.”

Like Asberry, Howard Crawford — who now heads the Northern District covering 14 states and the District of Columbia — followed his children into the Knights back in the 1970s.

“They became Junior Daughters and like a lot of men I was sitting around the house not doing much of anything,” said Crawford, who lives in suburban Flossmoor, but is a member of the St. Felicitas/St. Ailbe Council.

Crawford believes the most important thing he has gained from his long involvement in the Knights is “the opportunity to meet so many people from all over that I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to know.”

For more about the Knights of Peter Claver, visit