Editors’ Note: We’ve devoted a set of articles to examining Catholic religious communities today. Despite the impressive variety of these communities, some common themes emerge: the importance of a shared prayer life; the difficulty of adapting to new circumstances; the relationship of community to place. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The Varieties of Religious Community Today.
In the early twentieth century, many lay Catholics formed fraternal organizations—associations of mutual aid, service, and community—for support in the face of religious and ethnic discrimination. The Knights of Columbus is one such group. But Black Catholics, seeking support amid the injustices of the Jim Crow South, were denied membership in these organizations. And so they formed their own.
The Knights of Peter Claver (KPC) was founded on November 7, 1909, in Mobile, Alabama, by four priests of St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart and three laymen of the Diocese of Mobile. Modeled after the Knights of Columbus, KPC gave Black Catholic men the opportunity to serve God and the Church, to render aid and assistance to the sick and disabled, and to promote community. Over time, the group expanded to include women and children as well.
As a missionary, St. Peter Claver had witnessed the adverse treatment of African slaves in the port of Cartagena, Colombia. Reflecting on the suffering of Christ, Claver and his fellow Jesuits acknowledged the slaves’ human dignity by caring for the sick and dying among them. He also baptized many of them into the Catholic faith. He would become known as the Apostle of the Slaves.
Today, the Knights of Peter Claver are active in parishes around the country. In local chapters referred to as councils, courts, or subordinate units, KPC continues the legacy of its patron by serving the marginalized and vulnerable in society. The supreme legislative body is vested in the National Council Board of Directors. Subordinate units are grouped into districts and states throughout the country, with representation on the National Council. KPC is a fairly democratic organization, governed by its charter, constitution, and bylaws in keeping with its objectives.
My own upbringing as a Catholic has been informed by my family’s involvement with the Knights of Peter Claver and the Ladies Auxiliary. My father, Gregory Warner Sr., was initiated into the Order in 1981, and has held various positions at local, district, and national levels. As deputy of the Western states, he worked to expand the organization by recruiting new members and creating new units around the district. Later, as the grand knight of Council 220 at Transfiguration Church in Los Angeles, he raised money for scholarships, cooked meals for those who need food on Thanksgiving, and provided funds and services to the parish.
My father’s dedication to KPC inspired my mother, my siblings, and me to follow in his footsteps. One of the things that sets the Knights of Peter Claver apart from many other Catholic fraternal organizations is their focus on participation by the whole family, which the Catechism describes as “the original cell of social life.” I have been a member of KPC since I was able to join, right after I received First Communion. I was initiated into the Junior Daughters of Transfiguration Court No. 220 in Los Angeles, California. My brother and I held positions in the Junior Division as junior grand knight and junior grand lady of our parish unit. My sister served as the junior counselor at her parish, and is now the junior directress for the Western States District, responsible for the junior divisions of all units in the district. As a child, I loved being part of a community my parents loved so much. I was excited to be able to “turn out” with the group: everyone comes together to celebrate an event during a Sunday Mass wearing the community’s characteristic white outfits, as well as regalia indicating what degree of the order they belong to.
I have also enjoyed the work that I have been able to do within the order. As a junior daughter, I participated in service events like fundraisers to benefit those in need and clothing drives for one of the local women’s housing groups. Every year there is a convention that brings together members from around the country for annual meetings and fellowship. As an adult member, I have enjoyed participating in the service projects that the young adults have hosted. One year, we served at an after-school program by helping to clean out the school’s basement, paint fences, and organize activities for the kids who attended. Another year, we volunteered to organize the warehouse at Habitat for Humanity in Dallas. I have also served as the cantor and bassist at the convention liturgies, some of which have been televised on EWTN. One of my greatest joys is making music, and it’s wonderful to be able to join voices with other musicians in KPC to praise and celebrate our Black Catholic heritage.
In Austin, Texas, where I now live, the Knights provide for the needs of the community with volunteer service and donations to Holy Cross Parish, Meals on Wheels, sickle-cell research, food drives, fan drives, community-service projects, scholarship initiatives, school-supply drives, seminaries, homeless shelters, and blood drives. That’s just one city; the Knights of Peter Claver are doing similar work throughout the United States.
The Order has proved to be resilient for over a century now. In the face of racism and hatred in our country, and in the wake of natural disasters—Hurricane Katrina seriously damaged the National Headquarters in New Orleans—we are still standing. Through prayer and the bonds of community, we have continued the work of our patron, caring for those who need care the most, witnessing to the love of Christ.