St. Peter Claver Catholic Church
Religion and Community Activism on Pennsylvania Avenue
Saint Peter Claver Church at Pennsylvania Avenue and Fremont Street takes its’ name from a sixteenth-century Spanish priest who is considered the patron saint of slaves. The building dates back to 1888 making it the city’s second oldest African-American Roman Catholic Church. True to the inspiration of Saint Claver, the congregation and their leaders, have long been active in seeking equal rights for African Americans in Baltimore.
Father Henry Offer led the church from 1960 to 1971 and was a member of the NAACP and Urban League. In 1968, he was one of the city’s African American leaders to speak out after the riots following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., criticizing Governor Spiro Agnew for laying blame for the unrest on local black activists. Later that same year, the parish chartered buses to transport its members, as well as community residents, to the Poor People’s March on Washington. The march, planned by the by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference before King’s death, was led by Civil Rights activist Ralph Abernathy.
In 1966, Father Philip Berrigan advocated for the disinvested urban neighborhoods from his position at the church. Berrigan, whose long career as a Catholic activist included burning Vietnam War draft cards with his brother Daniel Berrigan and others of the Catonsville Nine. In the years leading up to this, Berrigan worked from St. Peter Claver to establish the Baltimore Interfaith Peace Mission and actively lobbied and demonstrated for the city’s African American communities.
Another Civil Rights activist coming from St. Peter Claver in the 1960s was Father John Harfmann. In 1967, Harfmann, who was white, worked with Black activist Dickey Burke to provide recreation opportunities in West Baltimore through Operation CHAMP. During his tenure at the church, he also participated in integration activities with church members and actively supported efforts of BUILD (Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development) to create housing, provide job opportunities, and rebuild neighborhoods in the city. At his funeral, fellow priests remembered how Harfmann was “wholly dedicated to being a priest in the African American community,” and recalled him as “a tireless fighter for justice who did things that people said were not possible.”
Today, the church continues their long tradition of civil rights and community activism, in part, by hosting the No Boundaries Coalition that works to unite communities around the church that have historically been divided by racial and economic barriers.