Places that Matter

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St. Peter Claver RC Church

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Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
The first African American Catholic Church in the Brooklyn diocese
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When it was founded in 1921, the St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church was the first African American Roman Catholic Church in the diocese of Brooklyn. It has a long tradition of religious and community service and has also founded a number of other significant institutions in its local neighborhood and around the city.

St. Peter Claver was begun through the impetus of the Colored Catholic Club and Reverend Bernard Quinn. Wanting a parish welcoming to an African American population, they began holding services in 1921 in Our Lady of Mercy Church on Schermerhorn Street (building is no longer there). A year later they found a permanent home in a 60 year-old red brick church on Ormond Place (now Claver Place) that had formerly housed Congregational, Episcopalian, and Baptist congregations. Although it has been renovated and remodeled over the years, most recently in 1993, the church remains in this original Bedford-Stuyvesant home.

After its opening, the parish rapidly grew in size and by 1937 it had baptized some 3,000 converts. This growth was probably due at least in part to racist attitudes in other churches--from the beginning St. Peter Claver sought to create an inclusive atmosphere for its predominately African American population. The physical manifestation of this can be seen in the church's murals. In 1930 depictions of the Ugandan Martyrs and of St. Peter Claver, who dedicated his life to working with Africans who were victims of the slave trade, were added to murals located in the sanctuary. And, in 1960, depictions of the seven North African saints from Christianity’s early period were added.

In its local community and beyond the church has played a important role through its founding of a number of related institutions. Two years after opening it founded a school in nearby brownstones and in 1931 it created a permanent school and youth center (the school closed in 1988). It also opened missions throughout the city as well as 15 instructional centers and an orphanage and summer camp in Long Island. In later years it also opened a credit union and a home for homeless mothers with young children.

One distinctive tradition of the parish is the Little Flower Novena. Monsignor Quinn introduced this Novena, a public devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux, to the St. Peter Claver parish. So popular did the Monday night Novenas become among parishioners and people outside the parish that services were held every hour. One longtime parishioner recalls that when the trolley car ran up Putnam Avenue and came to Claver Place, the conductor would say, "Little Flower Novena, St. Peter Claver"

Sources:

Brickus, Eleanor. Interviewed by Elena Martinez for Place Matters. September 15, 1999.

Dabney, Lorraine. Interviewed by Elena Martinez for Place Matters. September 15, 1999.

Harris, Della. Interviewed by Elena Martinez for Place Matters. September 15, 1999.

Marquez, Lorna. Interviewed by Elena Martinez for Place Matters. September 15, 1999.

St. Peter Claver R.C. Church. "Celebrating our Restoration." Brochure, 1991.

Watson, Clarissa. Interviewed by Elena Martinez for Place Matters. September 15, 1999.

West, Rev. Patrick J. Interviewed by Elena Martinez for Place Matters. September 15, 1999.

West, Rev. Patrick J. "An Historical Sketch of Saint Peter Claver Church." Brochure.