The Jim Crow South was no place to be if you were black and Catholic in the early 1900s.
Discrimination and danger lurked behind almost every corner. Even though “black” skin was represented by nearly every color of the rainbow — from jet black to pale white — birth certificates belonging to people of color created an unmistakable caste system.
Richard Chastang, archivist of the Archdiocese of Mobile, Ala., said any tiny measure of black ancestry, especially for a person coming forward to receive the sacraments in the Catholic Church, was enough to prompt a priest filling out the sacramental register to write “colored” next to the person’s name.
The Josephite priests who came to the South to minister to the large black Catholic population witnessed both social and ecclesiastical injustices inflicted on the people they served. Those injustices often drove black men away from the Church, Chastang said, and into the arms of several “secret” societies such as the Knights of Pythias and the Freemasons, who offered the men fraternity and security.
“Men of color almost had to join secret societies as a means of self-defense against the discrimination and oft-time violence perpetrated against them and their families,” Chastang writes in his recently released book, “Genesis of the Knights of Peter Claver.”
To address the dilemma of black Catholic men “falling away” from the Church in increasing numbers, four Josephite priests and three laymen established the Knights of Peter Claver in Mobile on Nov. 7, 1909. The association was modeled after the Knights of Columbus.
Fittingly, Council No. 1 — the first of three groups founded in Mobile that November — will host the Knights of Peter Claver Centennial Celebration Nov. 6-8 in Mobile, with a Founders’ Day Mass celebrated at Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church on Sunday.
“There isn’t much these days that lasts 100 years,” said Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry, the Knights’ national chaplain. “The most impressive thing is the staying power of this association through the discrimination and segregation that took place around the country. We also share this centennial year with the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People]. Both organizations have been about the advancement and the participation of African-Americans in society.”
More than 2,000 Claverites attended the Knights’ national convention in New Orleans in August. The Mass at the New Orleans Convention Center drew 5,000 people, and Josephite Father Ed Chiffriller, superior general of the Josephites, offered a moving history lesson during his homily.
Josephite Fathers Conrad Rebesher, Joseph Van Baast, Samuel Kelly and John Henry Dorsey, and laymen Frank Collins, Gilbert Faustina and Frank Trenier founded the Knights of Peter Claver. Father Chiffriller said he continues to be amazed at the way in which black Catholics persevered in their faith despite the indignities of having to sit in separate, black-only pews and waiting until all whites had received Communion before approaching the Communion rail.
“In spite of all this, they remained faithful to their Catholic faith,” Father Chiffriller said. “Isn’t it amazing what God’s grace can do?”
There remains historical disagreement in assigning credit to the priest mainly responsible for establishing the Knights of Peter Claver, Chastang said.
Father Rebesher, who came to Mobile in 1908, often is credited as the principal founder. He was assigned to just one parish — Most Pure Heart of Mary in Mobile — but he was most vocal in saying “we need to bite the bullet and found a new organization” for black Catholics, Chastang said. Then-Mobile Bishop Edward Allen suggested naming the new group after St. Peter Claver, who had ministered to slaves in the West Indies for 44 years until his death in 1654.
The Josephite founders gave several reasons why the new organization was critically needed: Black Catholics were joining beneficial societies that were forbidden by the Catholic Church or were joining groups that had strayed from their original Catholic principles.
To join the Knights of Peter Claver, a man had to be a practicing Catholic who “at least (made) his Easter duty” and had to pay a $5 initiation fee. That fee paid for both life and disability insurance.
“For the first year, mortuary benefit would be $50 and sick benefit would be $3 a week for 13 weeks only,” Father Van Baast wrote to parishioners.
The Knights currently have about 16,000 members in nearly 400 units across the United States and in South America. The largest concentrations of Claverites are in south Louisiana and Texas, said J. Kelley Terry, national secretary. Each unit includes a men’s and ladies’ division, as well as junior knights and junior ladies.
The Knights’ national headquarters in New Orleans — which sustained several feet of flooding from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — have been completely refurbished, and the office reopened in 2007. However, the storm destroyed most of the Knights’ paper records, which included historic photos and documents dating to the founding.
“Everything desk level and below was lost,” Terry said. “Most of the records were stored in file cabinets, and because they were paper products, they soaked up more water. One good thing was that a lot of our members actually had copies of some of our old documents, and they were able to share those with us to rebuild our archives.”
Terry said it was important to bring the national office back to New Orleans.
“New Orleans has had the largest concentration of Claverites in the country, but more importantly, home is home,” he said. “If the Knights of Peter Claver could rebuild in New Orleans, then a lot of other people could, too.”
The Knights’ main revenue source is the life insurance it offers to members. Terry said the association also is working hard to increase membership.
“We want to focus on re-enhancing our youth programs — not just scholarship programs, but service activities,” Terry said. “We also want to enhance our focus on vocation work in the parishes. And we’re working toward some self-improvement activities for members.”
Over the decades, the Knights have supported scholarships and building construction at Xavier University of Louisiana, the only black Catholic university in the Western hemisphere, founded in 1915 by St. Katharine Drexel. The Knights also have supported financially the United Negro College Fund, kidney disease research and social projects in dioceses across the country.
During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Knights took a leadership role in making sure that the Catholic Church lived up to its lofty ideals of social justice and common human dignity.
In 1965, then-Father Harold Perry, who later became the first African-American bishop in the 20th century when he was named auxiliary bishop of New Orleans, urged the Knights to support efforts to end segregated churches and to help the “Negro freedom movement.”
“It is evident that the Negro freedom movement will put our dual church system to a test, and it will be found wanting in Christian love and social justice,” Father Perry told the Knights’ 1965 convention.
“Negroes, for the most part, have only been reluctantly welcomed to Catholic community life,” he added. “This slow acceptance has resulted in a history of paternal relationships between the Church and Negro Catholics.”
Nearly 44 years later, Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago said he was heartened by the huge turnout for the national convention in New Orleans.
“I would suspect it was the largest gathering we’ve ever had in our history,” Bishop Perry said. “The visual there was a very powerful display of African-American Catholicism. It was great to see 16 bishops and three cardinals there. It gave a shot in the arm and a sign of approbation for the association and for what it has done for the men and women themselves.”
Who are the Josephites?
The St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart (Josephites) is the only community of priests and brothers that is engaged exclusively in advancing the teachings of the Catholic Church in the African-American community.
The society traces its history back to 1871, during the reconstruction years after the Civil War, when there were approximately 7 million freed slaves. At the request of the U.S. bishops, Father (later Cardinal) Herbert Vaughn formed a mission society known as the Mill Hill Fathers to evangelize black Americans.
In 1893, through reorganization, a new group, the St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart was formed. The small founding group of Josephite priests had among them Father Charles R. Uncles, the first African-American priest trained and ordained in the United States. The commitment to the African-American apostolate by the new society was the same as before; to teach the doctrines of the Catholic Church and to promote the Church’s teachings on social justice.
Today, the order, which is headquartered in Baltimore, Md., numbers about 100 brothers and nearly that many priests.
Sources: www.josephite.com, Annuario Pontificio 2008
Peter Finney Jr. writes from Louisiana.