Virgil Cameron (right) presenting the Community Servant Award to longtime Knight Sam Sims at the 31st Annual Knights of Peter Claver Mardi Gras Scholarship Ball in 2019. (File photo)

More than a century ago, the Knights of St. Peter Claver was founded as a means for Black Catholic men to support their communities, during a time when non-white believers were being excluded from Catholic fraternal organizations.

That legacy of service and community involvement endures today.

Today, the Milwaukee area has four active courts at All Saints, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Martin de Porres Parishes. The members are active within their own parish communities and also participate in larger coordinated outreach efforts.

Virgil Cameron is the President of the Milwaukee Inter-Council of Knights of St. Peter Claver and has been a Knight of St. Peter Claver for more than 10 years. He said he was influenced to join by his father, who was also a Knight.

“My council has 19 active members, and we are involved in fundraising for scholarships for high school students interested in attending college,” he said. The group’s fundraising efforts, including their fish fries, support his parish of All Saints in collaboration with the Ladies Court. They give back to their parish community through an annual picnic.

For more than 30 years, the Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver hosted an annual Mardi Gras ball to raise money for their scholarship funds. That event was paused during COVID but efforts are ongoing to bring it back, said Cameron.

“I love the giving back to our church and community through our volunteerism, working with the Ladies of Peter Claver in coordinated projects that support our church,” said Cameron. “I feel this is what Jesus wants everyone to do — get involved anyway you can and support the Church community.”

The St. Martin de Porres Court 304 of the Knights of Peter Claver has a popular Brat and Corn Roast every Juneteenth that has been held annually since the early 1980s. Post-pandemic, that event has become an especially important fundraiser for the scholarship fund. The council also hosts casino trips to fundraise.

Steven Teasley, a parishioner of St. Martin de Porres, has been involved in the Knights of Peter Claver since 1975. He felt compelled to join because of the organization’s outreach to Black Catholic youth, particularly in the form of youth scholarships. He is now the Northern District Area Deputy in charge of Wisconsin for the Knights.

Over the years, the organization has provided Teasley and others with much-needed fellowship and support, he said. Through his work with the Knights of Peter Claver, he and several others formed a group dedicated solely to spiritually nourishing the lives of Catholic men. The Black Catholic Men’s Group of Milwaukee “correlated from me being in that kind of position (with the Knights of Peter Claver) to relate back to the Church and our men,” he said. “We want all the young men to get back into the Church, to see what they’re missing. We talk about various things that relate back to the Church, into the Church, so they can understand that they’re not alone, that somebody’s out there that (whom) can talk to.” Membership in that group is open to all Catholic men, of all races, from any parish in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Teasley said that it is becoming increasingly imperative for the Catholic Church to integrate itself into the wider community in order to bring back the youth who have fallen away from the faith — and the Knights of Peter Claver do that work particularly well.

“The model is to help the community join the Church,” he said. “A lot of people have left the Church, and COVID didn’t make it better. We’re trying to get them back in church. The Knights and Ladies, they’re in the community to help the community to evolve from what the pandemic has done.”

The Knights of Peter Claver is also the world’s only Catholic lay fraternal order open to membership for men, women and youth; a Junior Knights Division of the order was founded in 1917, the Ladies Auxiliary was established in 1922, and the Junior Daughters Division was founded in 1930. This summer, the junior and senior members joined for the first time at the National Convention in New Orleans.

“As senior members, we must continue to serve as examples of Christian brother and sisterhood for our impressionable youth, reconnect them to the Catholic Church, and reignite the true spirit of Claverism within their hearts and minds,” wrote Christopher Pichon, Supreme Knight, on the occasion in Claverite magazine.

About the Knights of Peter Claver

The largest Black Catholic lay organization in the United States, the Knights of Peter Claver has 11,000 members nationwide and is headquartered in New Orleans. Named for St. Peter Claver, a Spanish Jesuit who ministered to enslaved Africans in Colombia, it was founded in 1909. The group came to Milwaukee in 1982 when Capuchin Br. Booker Ashe and Mildred Webster founded the first Court and Council at St. Boniface. Four members of St. Francis of Assisi Parish were also a part of the original court.

Nationally, the organization has more than 400 units in 72 dioceses. It is a member of the International Alliance of Catholic Knights.