Augustus Tolton icon commissioned

By Chicago Catholic
Sunday, August 21, 2016

While the Archdiocese of Chicago continues work on the canonization cause for Servant of God Augustus Tolton, organizers commissioned a hand-painted icon of the priest.

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, postulator Tolton’s cause for canonization, arranged for local iconographer Joseph Malham, artist-in-residence at St. Gregory the Great Church (5545 N. Paulina St.), to create the wood icon as a manifestation of the priest’s “inner fire for Christ, the Eucharist and the people of God whom he served,” according to the website

Plans are in the works for making prints of the icon available for sale. The 18-by-24-inch icon presently hangs in the Vicariate VI offices at the Cardinal Meyer Center, 3525 S. Lake Park Ave.

Tolton is the first identified black priest in the United States. The archdiocese opened his cause for canonization in 2010.

The icon of Tolton, like all icons, does not have an exterior light source but shows one who is illuminated from within.

Because he was African American, Tolton was denied admittance to American seminaries, but was accepted in Rome, which is depicted in the red tassel on his biretta, an honor reserved only for priests ordained in Rome.

He is vested in a white chasuble that signifies not only his love of the Mass but Easter joy and his immersion in the Paschal Mystery. Tolton blesses the viewer with his right hand honoring Christ; the three fingers joined recognize the Holy Trinity while the two fingers raised declare the humanity and divinity of Christ in one person, according to information about the icon posted on the Tolton canonization website.

Tolton’s left hand rests over his heart, symbolizing his great love for the people of God whom he served in Chicago. His fingers are slightly separated, symbolizing the prejudice and separation he and other African Americans experienced but which acts of love, service and forgiveness will one day heal and join.

Augustus Tolton was born into slavery and fled with his mother and siblings through the woods of northern Missouri and across the Mississippi while being pursued by soldiers. He was only 9 years old. The small family made their home in Quincy, Illinois, a sanctuary for runaway slaves. Tolton’s father died earlier in St. Louis after escaping slavery to serve in the Union Army.

Growing up in Quincy and serving at Mass, young Augustus felt a call to the priesthood but because of rampant racism no seminary in the United States would accept him.

He headed to Rome, and after ordination he was sent back to Quincy to be a missionary to the community there, again facing racism.

Tolton arrived in Chicago in 1889 to minister to black Catholics. He worked tirelessly for his congregation, to the point of exhaustion, and on July 9, 1897, he died of heat stroke while returning from a retreat. He was 43.


  • icon
  • spiritual art
  • augustus tolton
  • canonization

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