When Archbishop Blase Cupich takes over the Archdiocese of Chicago, he’ll also oversee the cause for the canonization of Servant of God Augustus Tolton.
Tolton was the first American priest of African descent and may one day be a saint from the Archdiocese of Chicago. In March 2010, Cardinal George announced that the archdiocese was introducing Tolton’s cause for canonization.
Last month, the local portion of the investigation into his life and virtue was completed with the sealing of his dossier before it was sent to the Holy See, where the information will be evaluated and, supporters hope, Tolton will be declared venerable.
The following is from a 2010 story in the Catholic New World, in which Cardinal George explained why he decided to open Tolton’s cause for sainthood.
“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 in March 2010.
Tolton was born into slavery. He was one of three children born to Peter and Martha Tolton, slaves living in Brush Creek, Mo. The couple had been married in a Catholic Church and all three children were baptized. Tolton’s baptismal record notes that he was “property of Stephen Eliot,” according to “From Slave to Priest,” a biography by Sister Caroline Hemesath.
During the Civil War, Tolton’s father escaped to serve in the Union Army, where he soon died of dystentery. His mother fled with the children in a rowboat across the Mississippi River into Illinois, ending up in Quincy, a sanctuary for runaway slaves. In 1863, his brother Charley died.
When Augustus was 11, his mother enrolled him in St. Boniface School during the winter months when his work at a cigar factory dropped off. His mother pulled him from school after only one month when the parish priest and sisters received harassment and anonymous threats because of Augustus’s presence. He then attended a public school until, three years later, the pastor of nearby St. Peter’s Church told Augustus and his mother that the boy could attend St. Peter’s School. There he became an altar server.
It was during this time that Augustus began to feel he had a vocation to the priesthood. Father Peter McGirr, the pastor at St. Peter’s, approached Augustus about the idea and helped him along this journey, a journey that would be difficult and have many roadblocks. They wrote to all the seminaries in the United States, according to “From Slave to Priest” and received negative responses. They also tried the Franciscans and Josephites to no avail. Meanwhile, several of the local priests took to educating and training Augustus for the seminary on the side.
After several years, they appealed to the College of the Propagation of the Faith in Rome, a pontifical college that trained and ordained priests for missionary work around the world. They thought Augustus could become a missionary in Africa.
In February of 1880, Augustus left for Rome. After six years of study, he was ordained on April 24, 1886, at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome. The day before his ordination, which was Good Friday, there was a change in plans. Augustus would not be ministering in Africa. Instead, officials of the college felt he should be a missionary in his own country. They felt it was time America had its own black priest.
According to reports, this devastated Tolton because he knew the racism he would face in America. But he went, uniting his future suffering with Jesus. Tolton returned to Quincy and celebrated his first Mass at home on July 18, 1886, at St. Boniface Church. He was assigned pastor of St. Joseph Church, a black parish affiliated with St. Boniface.
Despite fervent efforts to minister to his congregation, racism and anti-Catholicism hindered his ministry. Tolton appealed to his superiors to accept an invitation from Archbishop Patrick Feehan in Chicago to minister to black Catholics here. His appeal was granted and Tolton boarded a train for Chicago in December 1889.
At the time, St. Mary Church at Ninth Street and Wabash Avenue was the hub for black Catholics in Chicago. In 1882 they celebrated their first Mass as a congregation in the church’s basement, and it became known as St. Augustus Church after the name of the St. Augustus Society, the black Catholic apostolate in the archdiocese.
Once the apostolate had its own priest, their numbers swelled and they needed a church of their own. Archbishop Feehan granted permission for Father Tolton to open a storefront church in the 2200 block of South Indiana Avenue in 1891, which would later be known as St. Monica’s Church.
Tolton worked tirelessly for his congregation in Chicago, to the point of exhaustion, and on July 9, 1897 he died of heat stroke while returning from a priests’ retreat. He was 43. His death shocked the black Catholic community of the city and left a hole at St. Monica’s. Tolton’s body was returned to Quincy for burial in St. Peter’s Cemetery, where it remains.
While Father Tolton died more than 100 years ago, his legacy and witness to the Gospel lives on. Having Tolton as a saint for the whole Catholic Church but, in particular, Catholics in Chicago would be a blessing, Cardinal George said.
“First of all, saints intercede,” Cardinal George said. “ We need his prayers and his help, especially to become a more united church. Secondly, his example of priestly dedication, his learning and preaching, are great examples for our seminarians and priests and should inspire the laity.”
Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry is organizing Father Tolton’s cause for the archdiocese.
The courageous priest lived a life of virtue worthy of imitation, he said.
“Father Tolton worked valiantly in this city and in Quincy and through it all remained a faithful and dutiful priest and Catholic,” the bishop said. “He didn’t leave. He stuck with it.”
Father Tolton is an example for all Catholics because he represents the highest ideal that we desire in our priests, Bishop Perry said.
“His quiet witness is a challenge to our prejudices and narrow mindedness that keeps us insulated from the variety in the kingdom of God,” he said.
Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, postulator of Father Augustus Tolton's sainthood cause, said he was "touched emotionally" by the portrayal of the African-American priest's boyhood and family life in the new short film "Across."
The canonization cause for Servant of God Augustus Tolton is just one step away from going to Pope Francis where the priest to be declared “venerable.” The remaining steps in the process to canonization are to be declared “blessed” and “saint.”
November is National Black Catholic History Month. In commemoration of that here is an excerpt from editor Joyce Duriga’s new book “Augustus Tolton: The Church is the True Liberator,” Liturgical Press, $14.95. Tolton is the first recognized black priest ordained for the United States. The archdiocese opened his cause for canonization in 2011.