Before the COVID-19 pandemic spread shutdowns and loneliness across America, the Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans organized a day of loving service and fellowship with the residents of a local nursing home.
Carrington Guillory, the grand knight of the Knights of Peter Claver collegiate council, saw the joy from the shared experience of playing games and the giving of gifts from the residents who needed some brightness in their lives. He thought of his own grandmother he had lost a few years ago.
“You could see they had a really good time,” he said. “You could tell on the faces the joy they had from younger people coming in.”
The Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary is today the United States’ only family-based, historically black Catholic fraternal order, with a specific commitment to defending for everyone the sanctity of all human life, from conception to natural death, especially for those who are marginalized and poorly served in their communities.
Established in 1909, in an era of state-sanctioned racial and ethnic discrimination, the Knights of Peter Claver forged into a service organization for the entire family founded on black Catholic spiritual insight and wisdom that is open to Catholics of all ethnic and racial backgrounds.
Today the Knights have a Ladies Auxiliary, as well as youth programs for boys and girls respectively called the Junior Knights and Junior Daughters, and Fourth-Degree Knights and Ladies of Grace.
“For me, it was a family organization,” Guillory said, adding his older brother and sister had also been involved in the Knights and Ladies before him. “Since I was born, I’ve always been around it.”
While the Knights of Peter Claver’s membership is predominantly African American, any Catholic of any race or ethnicity can belong to the Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver so long as they have received their first Holy Communion and remain in full communion with the Church. Guillory joined the Junior Knights in Lake Charles, Louisiana, as soon as he made his first Communion. “That’s when I officially got involved, but to be honest, I’ve been involved all my life.”
Guillory said his experience in the Junior program helped him foster others-focused leadership. His national service project as Junior Supreme Knight was raising money to build a home in Haiti. The Junior Knights raised $6,000 needed to build the house and start the transformation of a village.
Guillory is grand knight of the Xavier University council, and the collegiate Knights and Ladies Auxiliary had been making plans for future service projects to the wider community when COVID-19 hit. Those plans going forward are contingent upon how Xavier University resumes in the fall and health-and-safety precautions regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said, “We’re the only collegiate unit right now and seeking to expand.”
Initially, the Knights of Peter Claver began in Mobile, Alabama, and spread to other areas of the South where Knights of Columbus councils had excluded black men from membership. The Knights of Columbus would later prohibit councils from engaging in segregation and make a clear stand against racism. Today, men are involved in both organizations, and their respective supreme knights seek to find more avenues of strong collaboration.
Faced with the need for black Catholic men to have Christian fraternity, four priests of the Josephite order and three Catholic laymen in 1909 formed and gained papal sanction for the Knights of Peter Claver, named for St. Peter Claver, the Spanish Jesuit who gave his life to bring the saving love of Jesus Christ to enslaved African men and women brought to Colombia, baptizing 300,000 of them.
Supreme Knight James Ellis told the Register it was “pure genius” that their founding fathers selected St. Peter Claver as their organization’s patron.
“He’d go to the ships, crawled into the hulls and motivated other people to join him in that mission and minister to them … to try to ease some of that pain and suffering,” he said.
“He did it for 44 years and never wavered.”
Family-Based and Open to All
The Knights of Peter Claver soon fully involved the family: Over the next 25 years, the Knights would add the Junior Knights, the Ladies Auxiliary and Junior Daughters.
“We have an organization for the entire family that’s Catholic,” Ellis said, adding that the Knights are seeing a growing diversity of Catholics join their more than 16,700 members, including Catholics of Latino, European and other ethnic backgrounds.
Beverly Thornton, grand lady of Mother Mary Lange Court 398, told the Register that her Ladies Auxiliary was founded with the Knights of Peter Claver Council 398 and has seen considerable growth in six years. The court is diverse and started with 25 members in 2014; they now have close to 50.
“We’ve been very fortunate that we have a lot of ladies that want to give of themselves to others,” Thornton said.
Among its various charitable works serving the community and the parish in Alexandria, Virginia, Thornton said the Ladies Auxiliary supports food pantries, Meals on Wheels and the domestic violence shelter program, provides supplies to infants and women, and carries out a coat drive.
“We try to be involved in things that need our attention,” she said. “Those are some of the things we’ve been involved in so far, as well as whatever needs to be done at the church.”
They also have a Holy Hour and pro-life Rosary, and their members join a conference call Rosary to pray with other Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver from coast to coast. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, they would all attend Mass as a Claverite family every other month. Throughout COVID-19, Thorton explained, the ladies have kept in touch over Zoom meetings and looked for ways to help people affected by the pandemic.
But Thornton said she most enjoys that the Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary are “a family organization.”
“That makes it really nice, because everybody can be involved,” she said.
“It has been fun, it’s been work, and there’s always something going on.”
Charism of Service and Justice
The Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary has a dedicated charism of service to the local Church and the local community, but also a witness to the Church’s social teaching.
Ellis explained the Knights of Peter Claver have outlined five specific priorities of the organization that align to the Church’s social teaching: advocating for criminal-justice reform and for the dignity of black lives across the spectrum from the womb to natural death, and working to combat domestic violence, racism and human trafficking.
“We know those issues happen each and every day in our world,” he said, adding such advocacy is part of their commitment to living out the Catholic life and drawing their members close to God.
He said the Knights of Peter Claver make very clear that the dignity of black lives begins in the womb, and when they talk about how they are pro-life, they make sure people know it involves “their entire life and the socioeconomic conditions” people may find themselves apart of.
Ellis said that the challenges of racism are different between 1909 and 2020.
“We still have the same challenges of racism,” he said. “The difference is things aren’t as evident or obvious as they were back then.”
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, the Knights and Ladies Auxiliary made an unequivocal statement that Floyd’s “senseless death” should be a catalyst to spark “effective change.”
“The Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary echoes the outrage and the demands not just for justice, but for the true respect of the Dignity of Black Lives,” they stated. “The ink has run dry on writing statements, and it is now time to write laws, to write policies, to write sentences,” they stated, adding that “we must never give up hope in the struggle for justice and the preservation of human life.”
The Knights of Peter Claver have enjoyed growing support from the U.S. bishops. Ellis is a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, giving the organization a direct voice on how the Catholic Church in the U.S. can address the sin of racism.
“That’s been a positive movement of our organization over the past five years,” Ellis said, adding the Knights have seen 43 bishops join them over the past four years as active participating members.
Ellis said the Knights of Peter Claver supported the dedication of the Our Mother of Africa Chapel in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and made contributions to Xavier University of Louisiana, which is the only historically African American Catholic university in the United States. Ellis said he was particularly proud of the Knights pioneering a collegiate unit for young men and women.
“They’re really outstanding students out of Xavier, who are doing very good things and could be a model to the entire Catholic Church,” he said.
Above all, Ellis said, he wants men and women who are serious about following Jesus Christ to look to “the Knights of Peter Claver as their first choice” for an organization to join and aid their growth in that commitment.
“Our faith is something we’re constantly working on,” he said. “It’s the driving force between how we treat each other — how we serve each other and serve the Church.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.
If you are interested in learning more about joining or supporting the efforts of the Knights of Peter Claver, please visit KofPC.org/info.