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Published in Our Sunday Visitor October 9, 1994

A Missionary to the “Least of Men”
By Rosemary Fielding

          Christianity ignites truth with love in a great fireball that radiates warmth and light to the most lost and abandoned corners.
          Sister Peter Claver, a Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity, is one of the rays.  Like her friend Dorothy Day, she responded at a young age to Jesus Christ's call to love the poor.  Ninety-five years old and "retired," she perseveres in the works of mercy and, with great love, tutors prisoners in the Philadelphia jails.
           When her small, silver-haired form, as solid and weightless as a sailing ship, glides through the Philadelphia Industrial Correction Center, her smile a sunburst, the prisoners, tall and muscular, make way for her, saying respectfully, "Good morning, Sister."  They repeat their words slowly, showing patience with her hearing impairment.
          Both orthodox and compassionate, she exemplifies the words of Jaques Maritain: "Truth must bear fruit in love, and love must proceed from truth." 
          For Sister Peter Claver truth and love meet in the hope of salvation.  Although she labors with the prisoners over both reading and math, her compassion begins with concern for each man's soul.  She is a true missionary.
          "The first thing I do is to make the sign of the Cross," Sister Peter explained in her deep, soft voice.  "I don't care if they are Methodist or Baptist or whatever. Father Judge [the founder of the M.S.B.T] said if you trace the sign of the Cross, you do more than conquer a city." 
          She bends forward, brown eyes bright with conviction and love, "I pray I will meet this man in heaven, that he will not miss out on salvation."
          She targets morality.  "You must say 'yes' to what God says, 'no' to yourself," she tells them.
          When she teaches virtue, telling them they "break a command of God" when they are unchaste, or they must ask God for forgiveness for their crime, or they have dignity and worth as children of God, they respond to her fiery faith with intense attention.  She says that she gets through to them.
          "We had a young man whom no one could do anything with," said Susan Barbella, program coordinator for Catholic Social Services, which has several volunteers who tutor in the prisons.  "Sister Peter was the only one who could reach him. He's changed since being with her.  He even looks different."
          "Michael," said Sister Peter of the same 18-year old man, "asked me, 'Sister, I don't want to learn reading and writing.  I want to learn about my faith.'
          "He wanted to learn the rosary, something visible to hold on to," she said, clenching her fist dramatically.  "He's opened up for me." 
          Christopher Moore, 23, asked for Sister Peter Claver because she seemed "more fun than the rest.  There is something different about her. I can't say what it is."
          "She brought me some peace in this place," said Christopher, who began living on the streets when he was 12, taking care of a younger brother. "She teaches me religion, spelling and math. She taught me the Our Father and the Hail Mary.  I am going to be seeing her about confirmation and communion when I get out of jail."
          Sister Peter Claver, one of eleven children, was born in Rome, Georgia, to a Jewish mother, a convert to Catholicism, and an Irish father, and was baptized Hannah Fahy, named after her Jewish grandmother.
          She calls her religious vocation "a miracle."
          "I was a little pagan," she said.  She had pursued dancing and acting in New York City before entering Trinity College in 1919.
          "When I left college I asked God, 'Make my life worthwhile.'  I promised every day to say the litanies of the Sacred Heart and of the Blessed Mother until I heard how He would do so."
          Finally, while praying in the chapel, she asked for a visible sign if she were to become a nun.  The sign didn't come.  "I got up.  I was so relieved that I didn't have to be a nun.  I had no love for nuns.  I thought they were the stiffest things.  But then I knelt down again and prayed for a little while longer."
          This time, she got the sign she both requested and dreaded.  And with it, she went into an ecstasy.  "I've never had the experience since then."
          Her mother tried gently to dissuade her, but she entered the Missionary Servants in 1926.  Founded by Vincentian Father Thomas Judge, the Missionary Servant "family," which includes priests, brothers, sisters and laity, serves God among the abandoned and poor, especially Catholics not served by a church or parish.
          Like most in her community, Sister Peter's missionary activities have been varied.  She has worked among the           destitute in backwoods communities in Georgia and Alabama, the Choctows in Mississippi and the priestless immigrants in inner city parishes.   Along with her mission work, she has taught, worked as a medical librarian, established and run Houses of Prayer and Hospitality for her sisters and the poor in Georgia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
          Her education includes three masters degrees.  She has received the Julie Billiart Medal from Trinity College (1983), the Signum Fedei Medal from La Salle University (1986) and two plaques from the prison society.
          In 1929, while at the Missionary Cenacle in St. Michael's parish, Newark, New Jersey, she was the catalyst in establishing the first black apostolate in the Missionary Servant's family.  The result of this was that black Catholics, segregated from the whites and meeting in prayer groups without access to the sacraments, received what they had prayed for: a priest of their own.
            Her close and life-long friendship with Dorothy Day began when she met her at the Mott Street Catholic Worker in 1929.  They visited each other often, and she escorted the legendary Father Pacifique Roy to meet Dorothy.  Their friendship is significant enough that Marquette University has requested all of Sister Peter's papers for the Dorothy Day archives.  The Catholic Worker House in Philadelphia is named after her.
          She has always connected people.  In the late 1930's she introduced Dorothy Day to the seven-day silent retreat given by Father John J. Hugo and Father Louis Farina in Pittsburgh.  The retreat "was the greatest spiritual metanoia in Dorothy's life," said Sister Peter Claver.  Dorothy Day called it "the bread of the strong."
          "Our mutual love and respect for Father Hugo has been a guiding light from the Holy Spirit in both of our lives," she told Catholic Worker chronicler Mark Ellis in 1978.
          She has connected many others to the retreat.
          Recently, she was able to connect a couple in Pittsburgh who were praying for an apostolate to the poor to a prisoner who was HIV positive and who "wanted to talk to someone about God." 
          "The beauty of this is the connection, don't you see?" she said.  She could have been speaking of a lifetime of such beauty.
          At ninety-five she still gives speeches to initiate and encourage.  As her college yearbook said, "Hannah doesn't 'waste herself in words,' but puts her eye-deas into action."
          "She is the Johnny Appleseed of missionary work," said Trinity Missionary Brother Joe Dudek.  "Wherever she goes, she leaves a trail."
          Recently the trail includes Hannah House for women (named after her) and Hospitality House for men, born out of Sister Peter Claver's love for prisoners and her desire to counter recidivism. Both houses run "Half-way Back," rigourous, residential drug-and-alcohol programs for parole violators.  Success in these programs is their last chance to avoid prison.
          "They come in pretty desperate," said Brother Joe, director of Hospitality House. "They've been living on the street, they have AIDS."
          Brother Joe said that Sister Peter Claver remained "the driving force" in helping him found Hospitality House and "the driving force in difficult times."
          "She is an initiator, a go-getter," said Sister Virginia Jenkins (SSJ), co-founder of Hannah House with Sr. Paul Knox (SSJ).  "She supports and challenges me."
          "She gets things going, then she is off starting something else. She's the kind of person people avoid," said Brother Joe with a grin, "because she is always giving you something to do."
          "I'm ready to go home with God, when He's ready for me," she said recently. "But until He calls me home, I want Him to use me. Things keep bobbing up to do."  
          She would like to see a House of Prayer started for the priests in her community.  She is concerned that many priests and religious have lukewarm spiritual lives, that they say they have no time to pray or will not keep silent retreats.  "Their work is all natural.  So many don't know about or operate in the supernatural," she said.
          She is also working to establish prayer groups in shelters for the homeless, both for the caregivers and the homeless. 
          "If you sow time with God, you will reap time and energy.  You will never get burnt out," she recently told a group of shelter workers called "Friends of Sister Peter Claver."
          Sister Peter Claver has poured herself out to the needy for seventy five years.  She gives no sign of being burnt out.   Her mind is sharp, her memory meticulous, her words eloquent and fiery.  Attending daily mass, praying throughout the day, she still burns with the love of Christ that is also the love of neighbor.
          "I was teaching a man, and I just stopped in the middle of reading," she said. "I asked him, 'Do you know that you're a very valuable person, that God loves you deeply and that He has something for you to do, if you pray?'
          "His face took on a whole different expression, he was transformed.  He was breathless. 'Did you know that?' I asked. 'No,' he said, 'no one ever told me that.'"
          "I saw a vision of God in that man."
          That vision she articulates before every audience, pleading with others to see Jesus in the "least of them" and "reclaim these men for God."



          Sister Peter Claver is forever diverting attention away from herself and toward the needs of the prisoners.
          "So many others are capable of doing what I do.  We are a human family.  We have a responsibility to each other.
          If the readers could see the men through my eyes. If we love these human beings in spite of what they do because they are children of God, it's one step to eliminate crime .
          What I really try to make these men understand is their own dignity and worth.  They are loved by an infinite and Almighty God who made them in His image.  He is compassionate and forgiving.  They have a responsibility to Him and to His people.
          These men are really touched, if only for an instance.  And they reveal to us the best that's in them and the deep desire to go straight.  They don't always live it out, but they want it.
          In fourteen years every men I've ever dealt with has admitted that he has asked God for forgiveness, and expressed the desire to live a straight life. 
          I want the readers to understand the deprivation of these men.  Their families disintegrated when they were young. They had no where to go for good, wholesome recreation. They dropped out of school.  They reach thirty and can't read. Not trained, dire poverty.  They are powerless in this society.
           They need to be reclaimed by the knowledge of God, to understand their total dependence on Him, to become men who will pray for the help they need.
          That's my ambition.  I could tell story after story to entertain people, but this is what I want to say.  I've never gotten anyone to write this. They always say, 'She's so...'"
          And because Sister always has something for people to do, she has asked that readers please print the "Our Father," the "Hail Mary," and the "Act of Contrition" on little cards to give to the prisoners.  Please send them to Sister Peter Claver Fahy, 3501 Solly Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19136.

© Rosemary Hugo Fielding 2011

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