NEW ORLEANS — The Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary embraced a new era this month, hosting their first-ever joint national convention, featuring both the junior and senior divisions of the 114-year-old Black Catholic fraternal order in the city of their national headquarters.
The historic meetings comprised a full seven days of fellowship, liturgies, celebrations, fundraisers, and the tried and true “business of the order,” as frequently noted by the leaders of the organization throughout the week.
Usually conducted in separate cities and on separate dates, the two age-based divisions of the order came together for the conventions to display the order’s commitment to youth and to a unified future. A combined group of more than 1,600 Knights, Ladies, Junior Knights, and Junior Daughters was present for the nationally televised Sunday Mass on July 16 with Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, which kicked off the senior convention and closed the juniors’.
“This historic place has given us so many great persons of faith, illustrious moments of history, and the Claver family has played no insignificant role in its heritage,” said Gregory, a longtime Knight from his youth in Chicago
“This conference brings together the past alongside the future, and we thank God for both.”
Gregory was one of several bishops on hand during the conventions, which consisted of a four-day national meeting of the order’s unique junior division, overlapping with a three-day conclave of the Fourth Degree Knights and Ladies, followed by the flagship gathering of the entire senior division, which includes ages 18 and up.
Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago was on hand for the senior convention for at least the second year in a row, and was joined this year by Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento; Bishop William Wack, CSC, of Pensacola-Tallahassee; and Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans. Concelebrants at the conventions’ various Masses were Claver priests from around the country, including—among others—Frs Kevin Fausz, CM, of San Antonio; Oscar Pratt II of Boston; Fred Kaddu, SSJ, of New Orleans; Anthony Bozeman, SSJ, of Washington; Ajani Gibson of New Orleans; Avery Daniel of Atlanta; and Msgr John Cisewski of New Orleans.
Deacons Michael Taylor, Allen Stevens, and Jesse Watley of New Orleans; Ken Radcliffe of New York; Bill Simmons of Atlanta, Georgia; and Al Anderson Jr. of Alexandria, Virginia, also assisted with liturgies throughout the week.
Truly an intergenerational affair, the conventions allowed adult Clavers to witness the proceedings of the juniors, including various special events meant to foster Catholic action aligned with the priorities of a changing Church and world. Among these was a livestreamed prayer service and Q&A session with two Louisiana Black Catholics nationally known for their work in youth ministry, Dr. Ansel Augustine of New Orleans and Fr Josh Johnson of Baton Rouge, who encouraged the juniors—aged 7 to 18—to see themselves as “a gift from God the Father.”
The juniors went on to conduct their national elections, choosing as Junior Supreme Lady Erin-Michael Tyler of Montgomery, Alabama, the granddaughter of Mary L. Briers, who served as the senior division’s Supreme Lady from 2006 to 2006. The Junior Knights elected Carlton “CJ” Gardner Jr. of Chicago as Junior Supreme Knight.
Two days later, after various sessions of business and national elections, the juniors convened for a social justice rally featuring a call from the New Orleans-based Sisters of the Holy Family for young Black Catholics to consider a vocation to the priesthood or religious life so as to serve the poor and marginalized.
In bona fide New Orleans fashion, the event also included a traditional “second line” parade—held indoors due to the sweltering conditions outside—featuring a local youth brass band and junior courts/councils from around the country displaying signs calling attention to bullying, gun violence, and the need for peacemaking.
The youth rally was the first of several events during the joint convention to feature a new Claver prayer against gun violence developed by the order’s Western States District. It was approved by the order this year for official use and later appeared in the seniors’ social justice meeting, held in the Downtown Sheraton’s grand ballroom on Sunday night.
During that event, priests, mental health professionals, and other advocates spoke of the need for more holistic ministry to young people and others in need.
“Anxiety is through the roof… [It] says ‘If I don’t see it happening, then a gun is going to solve my problems,’” said Fr Sidney Speaks of St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Marrero, Louisiana.
“Some of our schools are not even calm and safe spaces.”
The Claver prayer against gun violence appeared again during the joint session of the senior convention, part of a clear push on the part of the order to emphasize Catholic Social Teaching. This has been a major focus of the order since its founding in 1909, when other Catholic fraternal organizations refused membership to most Black applicants.
As such, opposing racism and violence of all kinds has since been of paramount importance in Claver courts (male) and councils (female) around the country.
Beginning on Monday, Supreme Knight Dr. Christopher Pichon and Supreme Lady Micaela LeBlanc presided over the respective chambers for business meetings, which chiefly considered various resolutions that could soon change some of the order’s basic operations.
Among them was a proposal that the minimum number of members for a district be reduced from the current count of 500, which could potentially open the door for more growth at a faster pace. After a lively discussion, the resolution passed in the Knights’ chambers and the number was lowered to 350, though a related resolution to split the Northern States District—which stretches from New England to Wisconsin—into two was not considered. Also rejected was a proposal that non-Catholics be allowed admittance into the order, which has historically been open only to Catholics in good standing.
On the Ladies’ side, one of the main orders of business was the announcement of candidacy for Supreme Lady elections in 2024, when LeBlanc will be completing her term. The current list of candidates includes the Texas State District President, Lady Shaunte Collins-Johnson; Vice Supreme Lady Marie L. Johnson; and past Vice Supreme Lady Hilda Wiltz—the latter of whom received the 2022 Cartagena Award, the highest award bestowed in Claverism.
The Ladies also made history with the initiation of several junior members transferring into the senior division, a ceremony that usually happens outside of the national convention. It was made possible this year by the joint status of the event in New Orleans.
During a joint session of the senior division held on Tuesday, acknowledgment was also made of Lady Esohe Asemota, who was elected earlier this year as the U.S. representative to the international board of the World Union of Catholic Women's Organisations (WUCWO). The KPC Ladies Auxiliary was previously admitted as an official member of the WUCWO and is the only such African-American constituent.
Awards bestowed during this month's conventions in New Orleans include the 2023 Cartagena Award, which went to Gracious Lady Jacqueline Michell and Sir Knight Philip Stiell. They were honored during a joint awards banquet for the Fourth Degree members and the junior division on Saturday night, also a Claver first.
The St. Peter Claver Foundation (SPCF), the charitable arm of the Knights and Ladies, held their annual fundraising gala on Saturday night, awarding their Distinguished Service Award to New Orleans’ own Fr Rodney “Tony” Ricard, pastor of St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic Church and theology chair at the Josephites’ St. Augustine High School.
A litany of awards followed on Monday night at the National Convention Banquet, where various courts and councils were honored for outstanding service, as were respective leaders of local units (Grand Knights and Grand Ladies). Other honors included the Good Neighbor Award and Junior Knight and Junior Daughter of the Year.
As the conference wound down, the national committee reports of the order were submitted before the joint assembly, with one standout being the social justice committee, which noted its various webinars and other events held throughout the year. These included a human trafficking webinar in January, an anti-racism virtual town hall in February, and an awareness event planned for the World Day Against Human Trafficking on July 30.
The report generated no small amount of feedback, including a sustained calf for women’s empowerment and respect within the order—which received a standing ovation. Another commenter brought attention to the crisis of losing Black Catholic schools and churches across the country, including a new closure affecting Clavers connected to St. Joseph Catholic School in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The same topic arose during a special luncheon Dr. David Robinson-Morris on Monday covering a new Black Catholic initiative he heads with the Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities. Members of the Clavers, an aging organization in search of feasible growth solutions, spoke of the need for resilience among young Black Catholics as they face racism and various obstacles in the Church. Reflecting the senior status of the average Claver, a special session with author and physician Dr. Corey Hébert covered the various health challenges facing African Americans, as well as the discrimination faced in the medical establishment in the United States.
Before and during the convention, the SPCF raised nearly $19,000 for scholarships by means of its annual raffle, and donations were also collected throughout the week for pregnant mothers served by the New Orleans Family Justice Center. A virtual silent auction in support of the SPCF, supplemented with an informal donation drive during the gala on Saturday, is ongoing through Friday, July 21.
The Knights and Ladies have also announced the date and location of next year’s convention, due to be held from July 17-24, 2024, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma—where the historically Black Claver College was established just outside the city limits in 1933.
New members of the Knight and Ladies, as well as the junior divisions, are being accepted year-round, and interested individuals can contact the national office for more information, or register online before being formally initiated and joining a local court or council.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.
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