Cardinal George

Tolton’s sainthood cause part of cardinal’s legacy

By Catholic New World
Thursday, April 23, 2015

Cardinal George (fifth from left) joins in prayer with others in front of the grave of Father Augustus Tolton in Quincy, Illinois on April 6, 2011. He joined a pilgrimage to the sites of Tolton's early life. Karen Callaway/Catholic New World

The fact that Father Augustus Tolton was the first American priest of acknowledged African descent makes him an important figure in U.S. Catholic history.

The fact that Cardinal George introduced Father Tolton’s cause for canonization only adds to his significance.

“It is appropriate that, during this Year for Priests, we recall our forebears who were holy men in the presbyterate of the Archdiocese of Chicago,” Cardinal George told the Catholic New World shortly after his March 1, 2010, announcement of the canonization cause. Pope Benedict XVI had called for the Year of Priests that year.

A review of Tolton’s life reveals a man who was more than holy, but also dedicated to spreading the Catholic faith despite a lifetime obstacle of prejudice.

Tolton was born on April 1, 1854, to slaves Peter and Martha Tolton, who lived and worked on a farm in Brush Creek, Missouri. His parents were married in a Catholic ceremony, and raised Tolton and his brother and sister in the Catholic faith.

Tolton’s father escaped to St. Louis during the Civil War to serve in the Union Army, but was later discovered to have died of dysentery shortly after his arrival in the city. Left alone and fearing that her three children would be sold, Martha Tolton plotted an escape to Quincy, Illinois, then a site on the Underground Railroad. Tolton was 9 years old, and his sister was still a baby who needed to be carried. Yet the foursome set out for the Mississippi River, walking the 20 miles through mostly forest and travelling only at night to avoid detection. They crossed the river to freedom in 1862.

Martha Tolton and her sons worked in a Quincy cigar factory, and the family attended Mass with other blacks at St. Boniface Church. When he was 11, Tolton began attending St. Boniface School, but was forced to quit after school employees were harassed because of his race. He was later invited to enroll in nearby St. Peter’s School, where he became an altar server.

Finding himself increasingly drawn to a vocation to the priesthood, Tolton graduated from St. Peter’s and later attended St. Francis College — now Quincy University — only to be rejected by every U.S. seminary. He finally gained admission in 1880 to a pontifical college in Rome that trained and ordained priests for missionary work worldwide. Ordained at the age of 32, Tolton expected to be sent to Africa but was instead dispatched back to Quincy as the first black American priest. His superiors told him American needed to be evangelized.

Disappointed to be plunged back into an overtly racist environment, Tolton assumed the role of pastor of the black parish of St. Joseph Church. Popular with both black and white Catholics, he nonetheless transferred to Chicago after three years. In 1891, he opened a storefront church in Chicago that would later be known as St. Monica’s. He died in 1897 at the age of 43 after collapsing from heat stroke. He was buried in Quincy, at his request.

His life shows a steadfast perseverance in the face of intolerance, said Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, who was appointed postulator of Tolton’s canonization cause when it was formally opened in February 2011 after Vatican approval.

“He never dished back the prejudice thrown in his face,” Bishop Perry said at a February 2011 prayer service for Tolton.

An April 2011 pilgrimage to Quincy and Brush Creek brought home to Cardinal George Tolton’s unwavering faith.

“I was deeply moved at his grave knowing that he had died in Chicago and done so much for us,” he said at the time. “Then to come to where his last remains are and to pray there was important.”

The Vatican in February 2012 named Tolton a “servant of God,” the first stage of the canonization process. Bishop Perry then assembled research on Tolton’s life into a dossier that was sealed at a September 2014 ceremony overseen by Cardinal George. Vatican officials are now studying the information to determine if Tolton can be declared “venerable.” The next stages are declarations of “blessed” and then “saint.”

“Everything in the record of the case demonstrates that we had a saint among us and we hardly noticed,” Bishop Perry said at the September ceremony.

Cardinal George put Tolton’s cause into a larger perspective.

“History is what God remembers,” he said at the ceremony. “The rest passes.”


  • cardinal george
  • pilgrimage
  • father augustus tolton

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