Father Tolton’s cause is now formally open

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Sunday, March 13, 2011

Father Augustus Tolton’s road to sainthood took a formal step forward Feb. 24 during the first session for canonization held in St. James Chapel in the Quigley Center, 835 N. Rush St. Bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful gathered for midday prayer to witness the taking of oaths by Cardinal George and the commissions to carry out their duties for the cause.

“History is what God remembers. So this is a most important moment in the history of the archdiocese,” Cardinal George said during his homily at the prayer service.

In accordance with the norms for conducting a cause, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints requires “the formal introduction of a cause for sainthood to take place in a public session with a gathering of the Christian faithful,” according to the prayer service’s program book. This session launched the canonical inquiry into the life and virtues of Tolton and formally commissioned those who will serve the cause in official capacities.

The archdiocese still awaits the nihil obstat from the Holy See naming Tolton a servant of God. Since that process takes some time, the congregation allows dioceses to move forward while awaiting the title.

There is a set process that dioceses must follow when pursuing a cause for canonization. It’s a process laid out in the church’s canon law and outlined in the document Sanctorum Mater. It’s the same process undertaken in the case of Pope John Paul II who will be beatified May 1.

As part of that process, the diocese must appoint various people to lead the cause, such as an episcopal delegate and promoter of justice, as well as theological and historical commissions and a guild. At the head of all of this is the diocesan bishop and the postulator who he appoints.

During the Feb. 24 session, Cardinal George along with Bishop Joseph Perry, the diocesan postulator, and the historical and theological commissions took oaths of fidelity to the cause. Episcopal Delegate Father Michael Hack, Promoter of Justice Oblate Father William Woestman and notaries Patricia Rimkus and Ellen Sochacki also took oaths. The cardinal also signed decrees associated with examining evidence into Tolton’s life.

Several bishops attended the midday prayer service: Bishop John Gaydos of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., where Tolton was born and baptized a Catholic, Chicago’s Bishop Raymond Goedert, Bishop Edward Braxton of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., and Bishop Martin Holley, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.

The next stage of the cause involves taking testimony from witnesses to the reputation of Tolton’s sanctity. There will also be a trip to Rome to examine the archives of the Propaganda Fide to document Tolton’s six-year stay (1880- 1886) at the pontifical seminary.

After midday prayers and before the oath taking, Bishop Perry read a biography of Tolton’s life.

Tolton is the “first identified black priest in the United States,” Bishop Perry said during the service.

Born the son of slaves in Missouri, he studied for the priesthood in Rome because no American seminary would accept him. Sent to the Diocese of Quincy in southern Illinois, he later came to Chicago to start a parish for black Catholics. He was only 43 years old at the time of his death.

“He is described as one who worked himself to exhaustion,” the bishop said. Tolton died during a heat wave walking home from a retreat. He was one of two priests in the city who died that week of heat exhaustion, Bishop Perry said.

Throughout his life, Tolton endured racism on every level, even in the church. But through it all, he remained faithful to the Lord, his church and his people.

“He never dished back the prejudice thrown in his face,” Bishop Perry said of Tolton.

At present, there are no recognized saints from the Civil War, Reconstruction or Civil Rights periods in the United States so, if canonized, Tolton would be the first.

“He is a holy model for anyone who wants to serve God,” Bishop Perry said. “His story highlights how the United States of America is a work in progress.”

During his homily, Cardinal George explained that studying the life and works of Tolton is important because “there is a pattern of holiness in every generation and in every time. But then, along with what we do to examine the cause, there is what God will do to show that it is his cause too.”

This is why we pray for miraculous intercessions by those up for sainthood. It invites God to show us how he worked in the life of this person, he said.

“History is what God remembers and miracles are how God would like the world to be,” said Cardinal George, who also admitted to praying the prayer of canonization to Tolton every evening during compline. (The prayer is available on cards and at

We say that miracles are when the laws of nature are set aside but these are laws of a fallen nature, the cardinal said.

“For a moment when there is a miracle … we glimpse the way the world would be if God’s will were truly free to operate and not blocked by our sinfulness,” he said. “The curtains part and we see Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom where lion and lamb lie down together.”

Because Father Tolton lived his life with much joy in the face of afflictions the cardinal said he felt the priest was a holy man and a saint.

“He becomes, no matter how this continues, truly a model and intercessor,” Cardinal George told the congregation. “I ask you to pray each day, not only that this cause will be successful, that all of us together with him will be saints of God.”