Sister Peter Claver was born Hannah Elizabeth Fahy on July 17, 1899, in Rome, Georgia, and grew up in a household whose members took their religious duties seriously. The Fahy family frequently housed priests who visited the Rome area, including those who were denied boarding at the town’s hotel due to anti-Catholic prejudice, and the Fahy women in particular sustained a Catholic lay movement against bigotry and nourished the religion of other local Catholic families.
Fahy’s mother, for example, served as the vice president of the Catholic Laymen’s Association in Georgia, an organization of educated Catholics who initiated letter-writing campaigns and published literature designed to dispel myths about the supposed threat Catholics posed to southern Protestants. One of Fahy’s sisters, meanwhile, taught Catechism to Catholic children in a one-room wooden church, and another devoted her Saturdays to taking care of the church altar and cleaning the building. Priests and other Catholic church officials in the early twentieth century tended to instruct Catholic laywomen that their primary responsibilities were to their families and homes, and that their obligations to assist the poor were to be extensions of their household duties. But the activities of Catholic women like the Fahys in the rural South often pushed them to expand traditional female boundaries, as Fahy herself would demonstrate in adulthood.
After attending Trinity College in Washington, D.C., in 1924, Fahy joined the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity, also known as the Trinitarians. Created in 1918 for women working among Catholic communities in Alabama, the Trinitarian order was established by the Vicentian federation of Catholic organizations, which had already been actively establishing mission stations inAlabama for a number of years before the order’s establishment. Upon taking her vows, Fahy assumed the name Sister Peter Claver of the Most Precious Blood in honor of Saint Peter Claver, who in the early sixteenth century called for the abolition of the slave trade and ministered to thousands of slaves passing through a major slave market in Cartagena, Colombia. Sister Peter Claver was fi rst placed in the Vicentian rural mission in Opelika, where she taught black children at a “mother house” located on a small plantation. She soon transferred to Newark, New Jersey, where she worked in an Italian parish but also aided black Catholics in the area as they generated support for the Newark diocese to build a black Catholic church.
Over the next half century, Sister Peter Claver ministered to the poor and needy in an array of missions in seven different states, but she spent a large portion of her life working in the South, always feeling a special devotion to the region and noting that missionary activity “must be undertaken in a special way in our Southland where the harvest is particularly ripe.”
Sister Peter Claver worked alongside and developed friendships with many laywomen activists during the course of her career, none more famous than Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement that provided social services for the marginalized while advocating a radical pacifist agenda. Indeed, Sister Peter Claver donated the first dollar to publish the initial issue of Day’s newspaper, the Catholic Worker. Biographers of Day and the activist herself credit the nun with having had a profound spiritual influence on Day, deepening her Catholic faith. Though Sister Peter Claver avoided political discussions and sometimes disagreed with Day, the two shared a similar resolve and sense of purpose to comfort the poor with spiritual or material assistance. On one occasion, for example, the two visited the Seamen’s Union in Mobile, and their advocacy gained the men the appointment of a chaplain and the erection of a religious center. On another, they visited the Gulf State Steel Mills in Gadsden, where Day hoped to help organize a labor union. This was a potentially dangerous effort, but Sister Peter Claver was unbowed and, according to Day, was “perfectly at home in the noise and confusion of a steel mill” guarded by men with pistols. One union organizer noted that he could imagine the nun “going anywhere in [a] quest for souls.”
Among the more unusual efforts Sister Peter Claver undertook in that quest was her involvement with “motor mission” revivals, in which Catholic priests brought open air revivals to the South and Midwest in cars with attached mechanical pulpits or portable chapel-trailers. Traveling through rural portions of northern Alabama in the 1930s and 1940s, Sister Peter Claver, along with other nuns and volunteer laywomen, visited towns and individual homes in advance of the revival, providing religious instruction to a scattered Catholic population in anticipation of the event, negotiating with town authorities for the use of a park or other public space, and arranging electricity hookups so the revival leader might use the sound system or show a film.
Many of the places Sister Peter Claver and her female religious companions visited were populated with skeptical or hostile Protestants who did not take kindly to visiting Catholics, especially unmarried women traveling alone. Therefore, Sister Peter Claver and other female volunteers rarely stayed in town for the motor mission revival itself, lest they raise questions about the relationships between priests and nuns. Nonetheless, if the presence and activities in the South of women like Sister Peter Claver—assertive, self-sufficient, and unwed—disrupted conventional gender norms and made white southern Protestants uneasy, they also played vital roles in the development and sustenance of evangelical Catholicism in the region and sat at the vanguard of important efforts for social justice.
About the Author
Natalie J. Ring is associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Dallas. She is the author of Th e Problem South: Region, Empire, and the New Liberal State (University of Georgia Press) and co-editor of Th e Folly of Jim Crow: Rethinking the Segregated South (Texas A&M Press)