Knights of Peter Claver in the Shadows: Order Reflects Status of Black U.S. Catholics

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CHICAGO -- Three lithe dancers, dressed in colorful African prestige cloth and flowing white skirts, created a cultural bridge between dozens of now-independent African countries and their descendants in the United States. They danced before seven African-American bishops, a smattering of clergy, and 1,800 Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver, the largest predominantly black organization in the world, gathered at Chicago's Hilton Hotel for their 80th National Convention August 4-10.

Like the Claverites themselves, the Mass was fairly traditional, but it was marked by touches of African culture, including the post-communion dancing before the altar, Eucharist served from woven baskets and powerful Makonde carvings set before the altar. The huge International Ballroom of the Hilton was sprinkled with children, dressed in their Sunday best and clinging to their parents. This was a gathering of families.

"We don't deal in negatives," A Jackie Elly, supreme knight from Moss Point, Miss., said. "But if we are going to talk the talk, we've got to walk the walk."

Elly, a maintenance supervisor for Chevron Oil Co., has been a knight for 39 years. His father was a member and his mother one of the Ladies of Peter Claver. Now in his first term as supreme knight, he devotes virtually full time to his duites. "If it weren't for my employer who supports what I'm doing, I couldn't do the job," he said. For his efforts, he receives $200 a month and travel expenses, not a big bite out of the organization's $3.4 million budget.

The Knights of Peter Claver have 288 councils in 31 states with 7,029 knights, 965 of whom have been members for more than 50 years. The Ladies now have 293 courts with 11,727 members. In addition, there are 97 junior branches for young males and 171 junior courts for females. All told, the nearly 22,500 members represent, including family members, more than 100,000 black American Catholics out of a black Catholic population of 2.5 million.

"We don't want to get political," Elly said, "but with the possible elimination of affirmative action, school lunch funds, decreasing funds for education, welfare reform and the many programs that aid poor people, we've got to tell our elected officials that they don't just serve the rich.

"We don't give the black man enough credit," he added. "He has had a real part in passing on the faith."

Elly holds the church and the clergy in high regard in spite of the prejudices of the past and present. "It's still there," he said. "We haven't been invited to take part in the pope's visit in October, for example. Lots of fraternal organizations will take part in the procession but we were not invited.

"You know, we won't go into a diocese without the permission of the bishop," he continued. "Most are very gracious but we have enough members in Washington, D.C., to form two councils, and Cardinal (James A.) Hickey won't let us in."

Fr. Paul Thoreau, national coordinator for the papal visit at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, said that his office had nothing to do with the invitations for such groups. "Each diocese that the pope is visiting -- Brooklyn, Baltimore, Newark, (N.J.,) New York and Washington -- issues its own invitations," Thoreau said. "The invitations are linked partly to the individual group's financial support of the cost of the visit.

"In Brooklyn," he added, "the national office of the Knights of Columbus is picking up most of the expenses, but this is largely because the bishop (Thomas V. Daily) is national chaplain for the K of C."

As for Hickey's refusal to sanction the establishment of Knights of Peter Claver chapters in the archdiocese, Jacqueline Wilson, executive director of the Office of Black Catholics, explained that the cardinal was simply responding to the sentiments of the black Catholics themselves. "We have the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of St. John and the Knights of St. …