MOBILE, Ala. — Mobile was more than just the host city for the 2014 convention of the Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary.

It represented a special homecoming for the organization, which originated in Mobile, and for Supreme Knight F. DeKarlos Blackmon and his wife, Kanobia, who are both native Mobilians.

"Welcome," said Mobile Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi as he warmly greeted close to 1,500 attendees at the opening Mass of the fraternal organization's 99th annual national convention.

To the delight of the many Knights and Ladies Auxiliary members familiar with the order's Mobile origins, he added: "Or should I say, 'Welcome home?'"

Based in New Orleans, the Knights of Peter Claver was founded in 1909 in Mobile for African-American men who were barred from other organizations in the Catholic Church. It is named for St. Peter Claver, a Jesuit priest from Spain who ministered to African slaves in Cartagena, Colombia, in the 1600s.

"I have prayed for you all, "Archbishop Rodi said at the Mass July 27. He shared a prayerful moment he had experience some months before the convention, when he had an opportunity to visit the small room where St. Peter Claver would gaze out to observe the many slave ships entering the port of Cartagena.

The priest and future saint would run down to the docks to minister to the incoming slaves with food, water and medicine as well as words of solace and love. St. Peter Claver was acting upon the knowledge that "each of us has an inherent dignity as a child of God," said Archbishop Rodi.

He also shared some of the not so well-known history of the Catholic Church in Mobile -- in particular its treating African-Americans with dignity when that was not found elsewhere, illustrated he said, by early baptismal records and parish assistance.

He was quick to admit, however, that the Catholic Church had its failings.
"But that could describe everyone here. I haven't been perfect. I have things that I regret. I am so glad there is a church that welcomes sinners because here I am," he said. "Although our record might not be perfect, I love our church. I would not know Jesus Christ except because of her."

Archbishop Rodi concluded with three prayers for the attendees at the July 25-30 convention.

His first prayer was "for the same spirit that animated St. Peter Claver," who faithfully and tirelessly reached out to those stripped of their dignity through slavery.

His second was for vocations, asking the young people present to consider becoming a priest or religious and asking all in attendance to pray especially for more vocations to serve the African-American community. His third prayer was that the convention would be a "grace-filled moment for all of you."

Homecomings are often a means of refocusing and re-energizing resources. That was the case for the convention, with more than 100 separate activities including plenary sessions, regional and national committee meetings, candidate forums and other actions designed to further the mission, goals, and objectives of the Knights of Peter Claver. Attendees also elected new leadership for numerous positions.

The organization consists of six divisions: Knights of Peter Claver, Ladies Auxiliary, Junior Knights, Junior Daughters, Fourth-Degree Knights and Ladies of Grace. It has units in more than 400 Catholic parishes in the United States and a unit in South America -- in San Andres, Colombia.

For at least one guest and speaker, the convention also served as homecoming: former U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman, who served in the Clinton administration. She spoke at the Knights' inaugural Founders' Gala July 26. The event commemorates the organization's founders, honors past and current leaders and supports Catholic education.

A former St. Francis Xavier parishioner and graduate of Most Pure Heart of Mary School in Mobile, Herman outlined four basic cornerstones of meeting and overcoming struggles: "awareness, advocacy, action and accountability."
"You cannot teach what you do not know," she told the 500 people at the gala. "And you cannot lead where you do not go." She urged them to be role models, "not just for our children but for everybody else's children."
She also emphasized perseverance.

"Times change, but values don't," she said. "We have to still fight for what we believe in. We have to still fight for the principles of this organization. We have to still fight for the legacy handed down to us for us to hand down to the next generation."

She concluded, "We've got to do the work to make the critical difference. In doing so I believe we will make the promise of America the practice of America."

Blackmon, the Supreme Knight and CEO of the order, in a "state of the union" type of address July 28 covered a range of topics from business operations, new administrative efforts and finance to pro-life activities, membership recruitment and retention, and new initiatives such as the Founders' Gala.
His most heartfelt comments were about participation, calling each Knight and lady, each junior division, each region and chapter to fuller participation in the order's mission and principles.

"It is through our participation that we make a difference. Participation is not measured by how many times we turn out in our black suits, fezzes and sashes to be seen by everyone. Participation is measured by how diligently we work to make a difference in the lives of those around us."

Supreme Lady Vertelle A. Kenion followed Blackmon's remarks with an update on the activities and efforts of the Ladies Auxiliary.

"We must grow our effectiveness in numbers as well as imagination, she said, concluding with a biblical challenge, from Chapter 3 Verses 5-6, of the Book of Proverbs: "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy path."