Bishops make pilgrimage to Tolton sites

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Sunday, April 24, 2011

On a warm, spring day in Quincy, Ill., as sunset approached, a group of bishops, priests and laypeople gathered in the old, tiny St. Peter Cemetery, stood before a large stone cross and prayed to the Lord for his intercession in the cause of canonization for Father Augustus Tolton. The group was beginning an overnight pilgrimage to the significant sites in the life of a man who was born a slave and died a Catholic priest.

“I was deeply moved at his grave knowing that he had died in Chicago and done so much for us,” said Cardinal George. “Then to come to where his last remains are and to pray there was important.”Bishop Joseph Perry, postulator of Tolton’s cause, organized this pilgrimage April 6-7 for Cardinal George and other Illinois bishops, including Auxiliary Bishop Francis Kane, who were in nearby Springfield for an annual meeting with state legislators. It was Cardinal George’s first visit to Quincy and Tolton’s grave site.

Tolton is the first identified black priest in the United States. 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 in 1897.

This recent pilgrimage to Quincy had an official purpose. Perry, as postulator, had to make a written description of Tolton’s grave site that would be sent to the Vatican and added to the cause. Since Tolton’s cause is a historical one — meaning no one is alive now who can bear witness to his life “it is very important that it be clear that he not be some kind of mythical person,” Cardinal George explained.

Eventually in the process, Tolton’s body will be exhumed and the remains examined by a forensic anthropologist, said Bishop Joseph Perry.

While Tolton died in Chicago, he requested to be buried in Quincy. He is buried in a prominent position in St. Peter Cemetery, which may seem unusual for the town where he endured racism — even by members of the Catholic Church. It turns out this location was set aside for priests and there is another priest, Father Patrick Kerr, buried at this site. Kerr died just a few years after Tolton.

During the second day of the pilgrimage, the group journeyed across the Mississippi to St. Peter Church in rural Brush Creek, Mo., where Tolton’s parents were married and where he was baptized in 1854. Four seminarians from Mundelein joined the group along with Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield and Bishop John Gaydos of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo.

St. Peter Church is a small, tworoom church (worship space and a sacristy) that served as the parish for the area. During Tolton’s time slaves were forced to worship in the balcony above the main church. Today, St. Peter Church is maintained by the nearby Holy Rosary Parish in Monroe City.

The Elliot family who owned the Tolton’s attended Mass here and are buried in the cemetery behind the church. There is also a slave cemetery on these grounds — separate from the main cemetery — where it is believed about 50 people are buried in unmarked graves. Wooden crosses painted white mark the area.

The group celebrated Mass at St. Peter’s and were joined by priests from the Diocese of Jefferson City and members of the Friends of Brush Creek Church.

“This is truly where it all began. Where Father Tolton was born, where he was baptized,” said Bishop John Gaydos in his homily during Mass. “This place was the beginning of Father Tolton’s exodus.”

After Mass, the group travelled a short distance to visit the farm where Tolton was born and lived until his mother escaped slavery with her children. Tolton’s father left a few months earlier to join the Union Army in the Civil War. He died in a hospital in St. Louis before ever seeing battle.

At the farm, Cardinal George spoke for a short time with the present farm owners Carl and Charlotte Thompson. Carl’s grandfather bought the farm from the Elliot family.

The distance from the farm to the Mississippi River was about 20 miles, according to Perry. Mrs. Tolton journeyed on foot through the rolling hills filled with forests and farms, travelling at night to avoid detection, with three children in tow — one just a babe in arms.

She would have also been trying to keep the baby from crying to avoid detection, Bishop Perry said.

The next stop on the pilgrimage was a site on the Missouri side of the Mississippi in Hannibal (also the home of Mark Twain) where it is believed Martha Tolton crossed into Illinois — and freedom — with her children.

In the afternoon the group visited an Underground of Railroad site, a visit to the site St. Joseph Church where Tolton was pastor and concluded with a prayer service at St. Peter Church — both churches are in Quincy.

Cardinal George said he was glad he made the pilgrimage because now he can picture the places when he talks about Tolton or reads details of his life.

“It’s like doing a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. After you’ve been there you have a sense of Capharnaum, you have a sense of Jerusalem,” he said. “When you read about those places in the Gospel all of a sudden they take on flesh and blood.” Bishop Kane agreed.

“I read the story but this really fleshed it out,” Kane said.

When you see the whole context of his life “you think what an amazing man,” Bishop Kane said. “How his mother found her way to the Mississippi River — that alone was absolutely astonishing. When you see that river it is a daunting barrier.”

Bishop Kane said he was also moved by how many people reached out to help Tolton become a priest despite racism in the country and the church, especially the Franciscans. People continue to champion him 150 years later, he said.