The Knights and Ladies of St. Peter Claver know how to celebrate. On the Saturday before Mardi Gras, the ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel in Brookfield was full of partygoers in colorful masks, enjoying lively conversation, food and music.
However, the evening wasn’t just about dancing. For the past 26 years, the annual Mardi Gras Ball raises thousands of dollars for the organization’s scholarship program.
It also serves as an opportunity for the organization to honor one individual who has had a significant impact on the communities the scholarships primarily serve. This year, the honoree was Capuchin Br. Bob Smith, retired principal and president of Messmer Catholic Schools, an urban Catholic school system serving more than 1,600 students throughout the Milwaukee area. His work at Messmer serves as a model for the excellence in education the Knights and Ladies of St. Peter Claver work to foster.
Named for St. Peter Claver, a Spanish priest who ministered to African slaves in South America, the Knights and Ladies of St. Peter Claver was founded in 1909 as a fraternal organization for African-American Catholics.
Open to people of any ethnic background, the organization continues to be influential in the African-American Catholic community and in the Catholic community at large throughout the United States, with more than 100,000 members.
The group focuses its efforts on service through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, in keeping with its three tenets: unity, friendship, and Christian charity.
Annette Frink has been a member of the organization for 12 years. She belongs to the oldest council in Milwaukee, Council 234 at St. Michael Parish. She is also the secretary of the Inner Council, the organization’s central Milwaukee leadership.
Frink noted that education has always been a high priority in the work of the Knights and Ladies of St. Peter Claver.
“We believe that education is the key to freedom,” Frink said.
Each year, the organization awards several scholarships to students entering high school or college. Those applying are required to have a 3.0 or higher GPA and to be involved in their schools, communities or churches.
The Mardi Gras Ball provides an opportunity for the Knights and Ladies of St. Peter Claver to recognize one individual, “an ordinary person who is quietly producing extraordinary results.”
“Br. Bob has been an integral part of education in the community as long as he’s been in this area,” said Frink. “He’s such a dynamic person and spirit.”
Br. Bob, a Capuchin friar, worked with youth throughout his years of ministry. He started as a parole officer and volunteer chaplain at a juvenile corrections facility in Michigan, and then taught at St. Lawrence Seminary before going to Messmer. Br. Bob also served for a time as director of Catholic education for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Frink said many of the organization’s members have children whose lives were impacted by Br. Bob in some way, either during his time as a teacher or an administrator. He’s known for making personal connections with students while also challenging them to set high standards for themselves.
One of the quotes for which Br. Bob is best known is: “At the end of the day, you don’t change until you choose to change.”
“He’s a force to be reckoned with,” Frink said. “He’s for excellence in education, and that’s why we want to honor him.”
In his work, Br. Bob carries on a tradition in his family and in his religious community. The late Br. Booker Ashe, also a Capuchin, was Br. Bob’s uncle. Founder of the House of Peace, Br. Booker was also extremely influential in education, including at Messmer. The Knights and Ladies of St. Peter Claver, of which Br. Booker was a member, have named one of their scholarships in his honor.
“He just had the ability attract people to him in a positive way, and he was a giant bridge-builder among a lot of Catholics, and probably other people, too, besides Catholics,” said Ed Kurhajetz, an attendee at the fundraiser.
After Br. Booker’s time at Messmer, the archdiocese decided to close the school in 1984 due to low enrollment. According to the school’s website, www.messmerschools.org, a group of parents, friends, and alumni re-opened the school as an independent Catholic high school. Br. Bob Smith, along with motivated parents, was involved in the effort to re-open the school in 1985, and was named principal of Messmer High School in 1987.
During his 26 years as principal and president, Messmer Catholic Schools raised more than $100 million in scholarships for it students, and an endowment fund was founded at Marian University in Fond du Lac for Messmer graduates.
The influence of Br. Bob and other Capuchins continues to be felt in the African-American Catholic community, and their work is a source of inspiration for the future of the Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver.
“The men who wore those robes as brothers … were out in the community, doing what Jesus would have wanted them to do. The actual work of touching, reaching out and getting involved with people who actually needed their help,” said Clinton Wray, a longtime member of the Knights and Ladies of St. Peter Claver. “We need more of that.”