The last decade of the 20th century saw the growing imposition of the Jim Crow laws, as the freedoms given Blacks after the Civil War were steadily eroded in the South. Many organizations sprang up to oppose this trend, alas unsuccessfully. Moreover, the poverty that gripped so many Catholic enclaves in the North was not unknown in southern Black communities — even the Catholic ones. The Knights of Columbus during that period followed the method of “blackballing;” any single member of a council could end a candidacy for the Order. In many places this allowed one person to prevent any blacks from being accepted. In the face of this background, the Knights of Peter Claver were founded in Mobile, Alabama on November 7, 1909.Led by the Josephite priest, Fr. Conrad Rebesher, S.S.J., the six other initiators of the Order were three other Josephites, Frs. Harry Dorsey, Samuel Kelly, and Joseph Van Baast; and three laymen — Frank Collins, Gilbert Faustina, and Frank Trenier. St. Peter Claver , “the Apostle of the Slave Trade” was chosen as patron. On the Sunday of November 9, 40 Black men were initiated at a Mass in the presence of the Bishop of Mobile. Outside of Mobile, the first two council were founded in the old Creole settlements of Chastang and Mon Louis, Mississippi. In 1926, the Ladies’ Auxiliary was founded — but one of the distinctive marks of the Order is that the Ladies division is fully integrated into the life of the organization on an equal basis. In many ways, the appearance and work of the Knights of Peter Claver mirrors that of the Knights of Columbus: color guards wear uniforms resembling those of the older Order — although regular members are distinguished by fezzes. The Knights are also, albeit on a smaller scale reflecting their numbers, involved in similar activities, such as vocations, education, pro-life work, and identifying and mentoring community leaders; the Order contributes large sums to the United Negro College Fund, and to New Orleans’ Xavier University. All of the religious orders that work in the Black community in the United States have benefited — financially and vocationally — from the work of the Order. Now a nation-wide organization, it is headquartered in New Orleans, Louisiana — in which state it is particularly strong. The knights contributed $100,000 to the construction of the chapel of Our Lady of Africa at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Here in the Los Angeles area, the first Council was chartered in 1941 at St. Odilia’s Church — not only the first outpost of the Order in California, but throughout the West.
Having received numerous Papal benedictions, it is no surprise that the Order counts within its ranks a number of Knights of St. Gregory, the Holy Sepulcher, and Malta, as well as holders of the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice and Benemerenti medals. Like the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of Peter Claver is a constituent member of the International Alliance of Catholic Knights, based in the Palace of San Callisto, Rome. Although the specific focus of the Order is to a particular ethnic group, it nevertheless has been a great gift for the Church as a whole.
Knights of Peter Claver
Knights of Peter Claver, Western States District
National Black Catholic Congress
Oblate Sisters of Providence
St. Katharine Drexel Shrine
Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate
Society of the Divine Word, Southern Province U.S.A.
Black and Indian Mission Office
National Black Catholic Apostolate for Life
African American Catholic Center for Evangelization, Los Angeles