The records of St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church of Philadelphia, one of the collections held at Temple University’s Special Collections Research Center, sheds light on a unique aspect of Philadelphia history. The church was started in 1886 when African American Catholics in the region grew tired of the discrimination they faced at Catholic Churches of the day (if they were allowed in at all). Members of three parishes united together to form the Peter Claver Union with the goal of creating a “Church for Colored Catholics” in Philadelphia.
In 1889, they were officially recognized by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and in 1892, they moved into their new home at 12th and Lombard Streets (a former Presbyterian church). The church continued to function for almost a century until the Archdiocese suppressed the church in 1985, stating that due to the changing racial climate, a dedicated church for African Americans was no longer needed, thus removing their parish status, as well as all of their records. At this point, the church continued to function as a community, but could not offer most religious sacraments and services.
In processing the records of this collection, one obvious drawback is the lack of most records from before 1985 (outside of the school records). Rather than finding records focused mainly on the administration and rituals of a church, this collection’s focus is found in the community outcry over the suppression of the parish, clippings and other subject files covering the African American community at the time, the church community’s struggle to remain vibrant in a neighborhood that had lost its African American majority, and many issues of racism (real or perceived) within the Catholic Church as a whole.
From a processing perspective, this was my favorite collection from our time at Temple and that comes from it not having been previously processed. It was quite rewarding to take a box full of papers and create a logical order to the contents, rather than just relabeling folders or trying to figure out why someone had deemed certain records appropriate to folder together. This collection, though smaller than our previous ones, offered a chance to do some actual MPLP processing (a goal of this project), as well as learn more about Philadelphia history. And while I’ll not comment on my personal views of the acts of the Catholic Church regarding St. Peter Claver’s, it is quite eye opening to read about this time in Catholic history.