The Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary recently established its first council in Orange County. Bishop Kevin Vann of the Diocese of Orange, himself a longtime member of the order, provided a good deal of guidance and assistance leading up to the Sister Thea Bowman Council #406 was formally instituted on April 9.
The new council is based at Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove but is intended to serve the whole Diocese. Also in attendance were various representatives from the order’s Western States District and national office. Among the members of the new council is Deacon Darrell Miller, a former Major League Baseball player and the first African American to be ordained a deacon for the Diocese of Orange.
According to the order’s literature, Knights of Peter Claver is the largest historically African American Catholic lay organization in the United States. The order was founded in Mobile, Ala., in 1909, primarily to promote solidarity among Black Catholics and address racial injustice in the United States. The order launched its Ladies Auxiliary in 1926. The patron of the order, St. Peter Claver, was a Spanish priest who ministered to African slaves in Colombia in the early 17th century.
The new council is and was named for Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, an African American convert to Catholicism and member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Bowman worked to break down racial and cultural barriers using song, preaching, prayer and storytelling in presentations across the country.
A UNIQUE CHARISM
Local attorney Gunnar Gundersen began leading efforts to establish a local council for the order in late 2020. While the 2021 U.S. census estimates that the African American population in Orange County at 2.1 percent, Gundersen noted that the county is quickly becoming more diverse. Gunderson believes the new council will play a vital role in increasing awareness of racial injustice as well as poverty and family issues within the Diocese.
“Having folks who have a long history of doing that from a Catholic perspective is important, especially as the county continues to grow more diverse, and will help the county be at the forefront of meeting those diverse ministry needs,” he said.
Gregory Herr, the Grand Knight of the new council, commented, “The Knights of Peter Claver bring a unique charism, mostly from the Catholic African American experience in this country, and I think it will be a tremendous asset with a perspective that is new to Orange County.”
A PLACE FOR EVERYONE
Herr learned about the national organization through Gundersen, who was a fellow parishioner at the time, but wondered if he would be eligible to join, not being African American himself.
“(Gundersen) answered with a classic Catholic response – ‘Of course; it’s Catholic,’” Herr said. “After learning what the organization is about and its history, I joined almost immediately.”
“There’s a misconception that because of the origins of the group and its unique calling to focus on racial justice and inclusion of Black people in the life of the Church, that it’s only for Black people, and that becomes a challenge,” Gundersen said. “I think there are people who would love to be involved in it and participate in the ministry and with the fellowship who assume that they don’t belong.”
THE KNIGHTS OF PETER CLAVER GATHER AT THE PASTORAL CENTER ON THE CHRIST CATHEDRAL CAMPUS ON APRIL 9, 2022. PHOTO COURTESY OF GREG HERR
Herr noted that although the new council has not yet taken on any specific initiatives yet, he foresees it helping to sponsor speakers who can help raise awareness of racial injustice issues and poverty throughout the world, as well as engaging in charitable activities. The local council will also support initiatives or the national organization, to which local members have already made individual contributions.
In addition to its Knights division and Ladies Auxiliary, Herr is hopeful that the local council will eventually establish Junior Knights and Junior Daughters divisions as well to promote youth involvement.
MINISTERING TO THE MARGINALIZED
Herr notes that the work of the Knights of Peter Claver creates awareness of racial injustice in light of the Catholic Church’s teachings on social justice.
“One of the ways we as Christians talk about racism is as a sin, as a way of missing the mark in terms of God’s justice, and that’s not something one usually hears in the secular realm.”
Gunderson noted, “Pope Francis talks about reaching out to the margins and reaching out to people who have traditionally been missed by other ministry efforts. What we bring to the table is that we have a long history of reaching out to people who get overlooked, and that’s a great strength that we bring to the Diocese.”
He added that the Church also teaches that racial injustice is an issue all are called to address, regardless of whether they feel personally impacted by it or not.
Herr emphasized that the Knights of Peter Claver does not consider itself to be in competition with any other organization and that many of its members are also members of other associations, such as the Knights of Columbus. Those wishing to learn more about the local council or become involved can obtain more information by contacting Herr directly at [email protected]