Chicagoland

Father Tolton’s cause takes next step forward

By Joyce Duriga
December 26, 2016

Father Tolton’s cause takes next step forward

Crews erected white tents over the burial site in preparation for the dig. (unknown/unknown)
Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield leads an opening prayer service before the exhumation process. The remains of Father Augustus Tolton were exhumed at St. Peters Cemetery in Quincy, Ill on Dec. 10. Tolton is a servant of God and the exhumation and reinterment are part of the canonization process. Tolton is the first identified black priest of African decent in the United States. He escaped slavery with his mother and siblings. He died in Chicago in 1897. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Clockwise from left, medical examiner Nathaniel Patterson, forensic anthropologist Mark Johnsey and archeologist Deacon David Keene remove soil from the grave of Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton on Dec. 10 at St. Peter Cemetery in Quincy, Illinois. Verifying and securing the remains of the holy person is part of the steps leading to canonization. The remains of Father Augustus Tolton were exhumed at St. Peters Cemetery in Quincy, Ill on Dec. 10. Tolton is a servant of God and the exhumation and reinterment are part of the canonization process. Tolton is the first identified black priest of African decent in the United States. He escaped slavery with his mother and siblings. He died in Chicago in 1897. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Handles from the casket were recovered from the site. The remains of Father Augustus Tolton were exhumed at St. Peters Cemetery in Quincy, Ill on Dec. 10. Tolton is a servant of God and the exhumation and reinterment are part of the canonization process. Tolton is the first identified black priest of African decent in the United States. He escaped slavery with his mother and siblings. He died in Chicago in 1897. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Clockwise from left, forensic anthropologist Mark Johnsey, medical examiner Nathaniel Patterson and archeologist Deacon David Keene remove soil from the grave of Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton on Dec. 10 at St. Peter Cemetery in Quincy, Illinois. Verifying and securing the remains of the holy person is part of the steps leading to canonization. The remains of Father Augustus Tolton were exhumed at St. Peters Cemetery in Quincy, Ill on Dec. 10. Tolton is a servant of God and the exhumation and reinterment are part of the canonization process. Tolton is the first identified black priest of African decent in the United States. He escaped slavery with his mother and siblings. He died in Chicago in 1897. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Clergy from the Diocese of Springfield look down into the grave. The remains of Father Augustus Tolton were exhumed at St. Peters Cemetery in Quincy, Ill on Dec. 10. Tolton is a servant of God and the exhumation and reinterment are part of the canonization process. Tolton is the first identified black priest of African decent in the United States. He escaped slavery with his mother and siblings. He died in Chicago in 1897. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
One of the artifacts removed from the grave was a corpus to a crucifix. The remains of Father Augustus Tolton were exhumed at St. Peters Cemetery in Quincy, Ill on Dec. 10. Tolton is a servant of God and the exhumation and reinterment are part of the canonization process. Tolton is the first identified black priest of African decent in the United States. He escaped slavery with his mother and siblings. He died in Chicago in 1897. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Father Tolton's skull is uncovered. The remains of Father Augustus Tolton were exhumed at St. Peters Cemetery in Quincy, Ill on Dec. 10. Tolton is a servant of God and the exhumation and reinterment are part of the canonization process. Tolton is the first identified black priest of African decent in the United States. He escaped slavery with his mother and siblings. He died in Chicago in 1897. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
The remains of Father Augustus Tolton were exhumed at St. Peters Cemetery in Quincy, Ill on Dec. 10. Tolton is a servant of God and the exhumation and reinterment are part of the canonization process. Tolton is the first identified black priest of African decent in the United States. He escaped slavery with his mother and siblings. He died in Chicago in 1897. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Forensic anthropologist Mark Johnsey right reassembles the remains while funeral director P.J. Staab looks on. The remains of Father Augustus Tolton were exhumed at St. Peters Cemetery in Quincy, Ill on Dec. 10. Tolton is a servant of God and the exhumation and reinterment are part of the canonization process. Tolton is the first identified black priest of African decent in the United States. He escaped slavery with his mother and siblings. He died in Chicago in 1897. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Father Christopher House (right), chancellor of the Springfield Diocese, and funeral director P.J. Staab place vestments on the remains. The remains were vested with a white Roman chasuble and maniple, amice and cincture. The remains of Father Augustus Tolton were exhumed at St. Peters Cemetery in Quincy, Ill on Dec. 10. Tolton is a servant of God and the exhumation and reinterment are part of the canonization process. Tolton is the first identified black priest of African decent in the United States. He escaped slavery with his mother and siblings. He died in Chicago in 1897. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Father Tolton's remains were reinterred in a new casket bearing an identification plate. The remains of Father Augustus Tolton were exhumed at St. Peters Cemetery in Quincy, Ill on Dec. 10. Tolton is a servant of God and the exhumation and reinterment are part of the canonization process. Tolton is the first identified black priest of African decent in the United States. He escaped slavery with his mother and siblings. He died in Chicago in 1897. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Crews transport the remains of Father Tolton in a mortuary bag. The remains of Father Augustus Tolton were exhumed at St. Peters Cemetery in Quincy, Ill on Dec. 10. Tolton is a servant of God and the exhumation and reinterment are part of the canonization process. Tolton is the first identified black priest of African decent in the United States. He escaped slavery with his mother and siblings. He died in Chicago in 1897. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Bishop Joseph Perry (foreground) and Bishop Thomas Paprocki (background) seal the new casket bearing the remains of Father Tolton. The remains of Father Augustus Tolton were exhumed at St. Peters Cemetery in Quincy, Ill on Dec. 10. Tolton is a servant of God and the exhumation and reinterment are part of the canonization process. Tolton is the first identified black priest of African decent in the United States. He escaped slavery with his mother and siblings. He died in Chicago in 1897. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

On the morning of Dec. 10 in a cemetery in Quincy, Illinois, Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton’s cause for canonization took one step further as his remains were exhumed and verified. Tolton, a former slave, is the first recognized American diocesan priest of African descent. In 2011, the Archdiocese of Chicago opened up his cause for sainthood.

While digging up Tolton’s grave may seem like a macabre undertaking and the antithesis of the prayer “may they rest in peace,” it is actually a reverent and well thought out part of church law regarding the remains of holy people.

“This goes back to a very ancient tradition in the church for a number of reasons. One was to document that the person really existed and wasn’t a figment of someone’s imagination or some group’s imagination. Finding their grave was the telltale sign that the person lived, breathed and walked this earth,” said Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, postulator of Tolton’s cause for canonization.

Also, over time in territories hostile to Christianity, the remains of holy people were gathered and kept safe to guard against desecration. In addition, the church wants to ensure the remains are well preserved.

“It’s basically out of our theology, our tradition that our bodies are made holy in baptism and the reception of the Eucharist and eventually they rise to glory. So while we’re treating everyone with dignity in life even their remains are to be given a kind of a reverential handling,” Bishop Perry said.

A third reason the church exhumes remains is to determine if the body is “incorrupt.” In the church’s history there are saints’ bodies — like St. Clare of Assisi and St. Pio of Pietrelcina — that haven’t decomposed and are “incorrupt.” The church views this as miracle and a sign of holiness.

While Tolton died in Chicago in 1897, he requested to be buried in Quincy, to which he and his family fled after escaping slavery in nearby Missouri and where he returned to minister after being ordained in Rome. He is buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery in a plot with another Quincy priest. Today that cemetery is sandwiched in between KFC and Wendy’s restaurants and located along a commercial shopping thoroughfare.

The day before the exhumation, cemetery crews from the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Diocese of Springfield — within which Quincy is geographically located — dug six feet down into the clay-based soil to about four inches above Tolton’s grave. They removed dirt from a six-foot by 11-foot space. Using sonar, they had already verified the grave’s location.

A white tent covered the remains and sheltered the small area from the elements. At 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 10 crews and diocesan officials gathered for an opening prayer service at the grave site led by Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield.

The Catholic Church through the Vatican Congregation of the Causes of Saints is very specific about how the process must go.

“There is a canon law that they have to follow that lays out exactly what has to be done and how it’s done to the point that they called the workers together to swear an oath to diligence and professionalism,” said Roman Szabelski, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Canon law also requires that dioceses employ a forensic anthropologist, a medical examiner and archeologist in the process. Those three men worked on removing the remainder of the soil and uncovered Tolton’s body. It didn’t take long to find the skeletal remains.

Over time the earth crushed the wooden coffin in which Tolton was buried. They discovered the casket had a glass top because they found a significant amount of broken glass mixed in with the remains. At the time Tolton died, glass-topped coffins were used for people of position or who were well known.

In addition to the skeletal remains, the crews found other items such as metal handles and wood from the coffin, the corpus from a crucifix buried with him, the corpus from his rosary and a portion of his Roman priest’s collar.

“The intent of all of this is preserving the remains we have of a possible saint. We want to make sure that anything that we find is preserved so it will go into a sealed casket and from the sealed casket into a sealed vault,” said Szabelski.

No exhumation is the same.

“In 1999 I was involved in the exhumation of Mother Maria Kaupas, who was one of the Sisters of St. Casimir,” Szabelski said. “You never quite know what you’re going to find. With Mother Maria Kaupas we did find her skull. We found some bones, some little fragments of bones. We found her sister ring.”

Kaupas was a Sister of St. Casimir in Chicago and the cause for her canonization opened in 1986. She died in 1940 so her remains were more preserved. Part of her religious habit was also still intact, Szabelski said.

For Tolton, the exhumation was slow going with a lot of hand digging with trowels and using soft brushes to unearth the remains to make sure as much as possible was preserved.

This wasn’t the first time archeologist David Keene removed skeletal remains from the ground but it was the first time he did it for the church.

“The difference between us and regular grave diggers is we just have an image of what we’re looking for, of what it looks like under the ground,” said Keene who is also deacon at Holy Family Parish, 1080 W. Roosevelt Road. “If this was an unknown skeleton and we were just recovering it, it would take us longer because we would want to expose it all first, map it, photograph it. But this is being done for the church and to bring up these remains for reburial so we’re going a little faster than usual.”

The type of soil determines how well remains are preserved, Keene said.

“This soil is full of a lot of clay which means that the bone preservation most likely will be very good. If you get real clay stuff the bone preservation is good because water just passes through but sand moves around a lot that really wears away the surface of the bone.”

As the remains were unearthed, the forensic pathologist laid them out on a table in a mortuary bag under which was a new priest’s alb. He pieced the bones together anatomically.

Bishop Paprocki led everyone in the rosary while that was happening. In addition to the skull, they found Tolton’s femurs, rib bones, vertebrae, collarbones, pelvis, portions of the arm bones and other smaller bones.

The forensic pathologist verified by the skull that the remains were of a black person. By the shape and thickness of bones in the pelvic area he was able to determine that the remains were from a male in his early 40s.

Once all of the remains and artifacts were collected, the process to reinter Tolton began. Priests from Springfield vested the remains with a white Roman chasuble and maniple, amice and cincture. Tolton’s remains were then placed in a new casket bearing a plate that identified him as “Servant of God Augustus Tolton,” along with his dates of birth, ordination and death. A document was placed on top of the remains attesting to the work done that day.

Then they wrapped a red ribbon around the casket and sealed it with a wax seal of the Diocese of Springfield. The coffin was in turn placed in a burial vault with another inscription. A second vault held the broken glass and coffin parts and both containers were reinterred in the grave. A closing prayer service wrapped up the solemn process.

The grave will only be opened again if Tolton is beatified, said Bishop Perry. No relics — pieces of bone or any of the other objects found in the grave — were removed that day. Relics can only be shared if Tolton moves on to the next stage in the canonization process — beatification.

“Then we can collect them again and give a portion to Rome,” Bishop Perry said. “Bishop Paprocki would like to set up a shrine here at St. Boniface [in Quincy] where he said his first Mass.”

Topics:

  • augustus tolton
  • canonization
  • beatification

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