Black Catholic mother church still mourned by lifelong parishioner

When 79-year-old Barney Richardson was an 8-year-old orphan and was brought into St. Peter Claver Church by aunts and cousins, he became a parishioner for life.

“I made the blessed mother in that shrine my mother,” said Richardson.

Now, 29 years after St. Peter Claver was officially “suppressed” or closed to new membership and sacrament services, and a year after the building was locked up and put up for sale, Richardson is still just as passionate about the church as ever.

He’s also passionate about its history. St. Peter Claver was the first and oldest Catholic church for black Catholics. It is named after a saint who became the patron saint of slaves for his ministry of slaves in Colombia in the 17th century and opposition to slavery.

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“Just imagine all the prayers that went to this shrine,” Richardson said, showing a picture of the statue of the Virgin Mary that stood at the front of the church. “You can feel the holiness.”

Revisiting the church at 12th and Lombard streets recently, Richardson sadly pointed out that one of the blue state historical marker signs in front of the church has disappeared — probably stolen, he said.

“I’ve been very active in keeping the church afloat so someone can take it over,” Richardson said. “It meant so much to me because as a child I went there I used to pray for different things. I guess the holy spirit is keeping me around to fight for it. I just hope they don’t tear it down.”

An Archdiocese of Philadelphia spokesman declined to comment on St. Peter Claver, but an Archdiocese statement from October 2014 on the closure of the church said it was closed after attendance declined to 15 visitors a month.

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Richardson said declining membership was inevitable after the church was suppressed in 1986.

“You hear people talk about closing your church, are you going to flourish on that?” he asked.

The Archdiocese also intends to sell the building, they said when the church closed.

The church, adjoining rectory and former school next door are now inactive are assessed at $1 million, according to city records.

“Net proceeds from any possible sale will be designated for the sole purpose of supporting ongoing ministry to the black Catholic community,” the Archdiocese statement said.

But for Richardson, who said the Archdiocese of Philadelphia didn’t support St. Peter Claver because it was a black church, scoffed at that proposition.

“How can you even have an office of black Catholics when you’re selling the mother church of black Catholics?” he asked.

“They want to sell it because it represents an embarrassment to them.”