On Sunday, November 29, 1942, the Father John Council No. 8, Knights of Peter Claver, celebrated its 30th anniversary. Some 400 members of the different branches of the Order were in attendance.
The Knights of Peter Claver, Incorporated, the largest and oldest continually existent predominantly African-American Catholic fraternal organization was founded more than 100 years ago. It was formed to provide opportunities for Catholic Action to men of color to be actively involved in their faith by living the Gospel message.
Who was Saint Peter Claver?
A native of Spain, young Jesuit Peter Claver left his homeland forever in 1610 to be a missionary in the colonies of the New World. He sailed into Cartagena (now in Colombia), a rich port city washed by the Caribbean. He was ordained there in 1615.
By this time the slave trade had been established in the Americas for nearly 100 years, and Cartagena was a chief center for it. Ten thousand slaves poured into the port each year after crossing the Atlantic from West Africa under conditions so foul and inhumane that an estimated one-third of the passengers died in transit. Although the practice of slave-trading was condemned by Pope Paul III and later labeled “supreme villainy” by Pius IX, it continued to flourish.
Peter Claver’s predecessor, Jesuit Father Alfonso de Sandoval, had devoted himself to the service of the slaves for 40 years before Claver arrived to continue his work, declaring himself “the slave of the Negroes forever.”
As soon as a slave ship entered the port, Peter Claver moved into its infested hold to minister to the ill-treated and exhausted passengers. After the slaves were herded out of the ship like chained animals and shut up in nearby yards to be gazed at by the crowds, Claver plunged in among them with medicines, food, bread, brandy, lemons and tobacco. With the help of interpreters he gave basic instructions and assured his brothers and sisters of their human dignity and God’s saving love. During the 40 years of his ministry, Claver instructed and baptized an estimated 300,000 slaves.
His apostolate extended beyond his care for slaves. He became a moral force, indeed, the apostle of Cartagena. He preached in the city square, gave missions to sailors and traders as well as country missions, during which he avoided, when possible, the hospitality of the planters and owners and lodged in the slave quarters instead.
After four years of sickness which forced the saint to remain inactive and largely neglected, he died on September 8, 1654. The city magistrates, who had previously frowned at his solicitude for the black outcasts, ordered that he should be buried at public expense and with great pomp.
He was canonized in 1888, and Pope Leo XIII declared him the worldwide patron of missionary work among black slaves.
Some History of the Opelousas Knights of Peter Claver
In 1900, the Josephite Fathers opened Saint Joseph’s College for Negro Catechists at Montgomery, Alabama. The school was intended to offer young colored men what was somewhat equivalent to a high school and normal course, industrial arts training, and catechetical instruction. These men were to return to their communities with a sound educational foundation and a good understanding of the Faith. Among the early graduates of the school was Leonard Dwight Lang. “L. D.” as he was usually called had been born in Key West, Florida in 1888 to parents both of whom were of West Indian extraction. His father, Joseph Lang, was a cigar maker and was employed by the Custom House at Key West. Lang joined the faculty of the College after graduating, and became prefect in 1908. While at the College, he became acquainted with both Saint Katharine Drexel, great benefactress of Colored and Indian missions, and with Professor Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute.
At the same time, an energetic Dutch-born priest, the Reverend Father John Engerbrink was laboring among his large congregation of Creole and Cajun families in Opelousas. Father Engerbrink expressed a great interest in providing educational opportunities for his colored parishioners. He secured the help of Katharine Drexel and recruited L. D. Lang to establish an industrial school for boys in Opelousas.
In 1911, Professor L. D. Lang opened Saint Joseph’s Industrial School for Colored Boys. His early collaborator was a native of Opelousas, Dewey Benjamin Donatto. From his close association with the Josephite Fathers, Lang had been aware of the Knights of Peter Claver from its very early days. Working with Father Engerbrink, he organized the colored Catholic men of Opelousas and made an application to the National Council to establish a subordinate council. At its quarterly meeting of 21 August 1912, the National Council approved the men’s’ request to organize a council. The Reverend Father Conrad F. Rebesher, founder of the Knights of Peter Claver, traveled by train to Opelousas where on 17 November 1912, he initiated the charter members of the new council. The council was the eighth to be established and the men selected the name of “Father John Council,” after their enthusiastic pastor.
The team of Council No. 8 set up Lebeau Council No. 10, St. Paul Council No. 11, Lafayette; St. Agnes Council No. 12, Baton Rouge; Meche Council No. 34, Grand Coteau; St. Ann Council No. 39, Opelousas; Father Pierre Council No. 40, Lawtell; Lede Council No. 42, Swords; Father Charles No. 46, Opelousas; Father Daigle Council No. 48, Welch; St. Francis D’Assissi Council No. 49. Breaux Bridge; St. John Council No. 53, Parks; St. Martinville, Council No. 54, St. Martinville; and Little Flower of Jesus Council No. 69, Ville Platte.
Father John Council No. 8 – Opelousas, Louisiana Grand Knights
Leonard Dwight Lang 1912-1914
Charles A. Guidry 1915-1917
Leonard Dwight Lang 1918-1919
W. N. Lamelle 1920
John Martel 1921-1927
Dugas Thierry 1928-1929
Charles A. Guidry 1930-1937
Theodore Durand Auzenne 1938-1939
Joseph Roland Prejean 1940-1942
Millard Matthew Guidry 1943
Theodore Durand Auzenne 1943-1946
Joseph George Donatto, Sr. 1947-1956
Note: Our colleague, Jari Honora is currently writing a history of the Knights of Peter Claver.
Sources: The Claverite, January 1943, pgs 8/9, Xavier University of New Orleans archive; http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/Saints/saint.aspx?id=1133; http://www.kofpc.org/; “Claverism in Creole Country: A Few Facts from the History of Father John Council No. 8 and Holy Ghost Court No. 8 Opelousas, Louisiana,” Jari Honora, GK, 2011.