Pope Francis elevates Augustus Tolton to ‘venerable’

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Crews erect tents over the grave of Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton on Dec. 10, 2016. The canonization took one step further as his remains were exhumed and verified that day. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Pope Francis advanced the sainthood cause of Servant of God Augustus Tolton June 11 when he issued a decree declaring him “venerable.”

The title “venerable” recognizes that he lived a life of heroic virtue.

Once it is confirmed that one miracle has been granted by God through the intercession of Tolton, he will be declared “blessed.” A second miracle may be required for canonization.

Unexplained physical healings have been reported to the cause and are under investigation.

Signing decrees issued by the Congregation for Saints’ Causes June 11, Pope Francis also formally recognized the martyrdom of three Catholic laywomen who were nurses for the Red Cross and were killed during the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War.

“We welcome this news from the Holy Father on the advancement of Father Tolton’s cause for sainthood,” said Cardinal Cupich in a statement. “Father Tolton’s holiness comes from his patient suffering, his brave spirit and his pastoral heart for all who came to him. His struggles to become a priest and his remarkable service to God’s people are admirable examples, particularly in these times, of the value and dignity of every person. I am grateful to Bishop Joseph N. Perry for his work as the diocesan postulator for the Tolton cause.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago announced Tolton’s cause for canonization in 2010.

Tolton was born into slavery in 1854 on a plantation near Brush Creek, Missouri.

Before the end of the Civil War, his mother, Martha, fled slavery with her three children and settled in Quincy, Illinois.

There, he was encouraged to discern his vocation to the priesthood by diocesan and Franciscan priests. However, he was denied access to seminaries in the United States after repeated requests, so he pursued his education in Rome at what is now the Pontifical Urbanian University.

Tolton was ordained for the Propaganda Fidei Congregation in 1886, expecting to become a missionary in Africa. Instead, he was sent to be a missionary in his own country and returned to Quincy.

After facing unbearable discrimination and racist taunts from local priests, he accepted Archbishop Patrick Feehan’s request to minister to black Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1889.

Tolton spearheaded the building of St. Monica Church for black Catholics and worked tirelessly for his congregation, even to the point of exhaustion. On July 9, 1897, he died during a heatwave at the age of 43.

He was known for persevering against all odds in pursuit of his calling and quietly devoted himself to his people, despite great difficulties and setbacks.

C. Vanessa White, assistant professor of spirituality and ministry at Catholic Theological Union, is not surprised Tolton is moving toward sainthood.

White started as director of the Tolton Scholars Program at Catholic Theological Union in 1998 and has been promoting his story for over 30 years.

“Back then when you said Augustus Tolton, people said ‘Who?’” White said. “I really see his story as one of perseverance in the midst of all of these challenges.”

It’s a message many can relate to.

“Tolton's life shows that if you truly believe and you have support you can accomplish amazing things. That’s a story to be told to our youth,” said White, who organizes the cause’s pilgrimages in Chicago and Quincy.

Despite facing racism by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Tolton “saw that the church is holy,” White said.

“He saw the hope and he connected with the holiness of the church and saw that he had a place there. The Holy Spirit called him to be a priest and no one was going to tell him no.”

His perseverance also shines through today.

“I see that in the same way in his journey toward sainthood. It’s been over 100 years since his death but that does not mean he was not worthy,” White said.

Tolton’s story is gaining interest from people of all races and genders, she said.

“Tolton is on the road to canonization for the church, not just for black Catholics. All of our saints are for the church so that we can hold this person up as a symbol of how we can emulate our own journey to perfection and holiness,” White said. “The saints transcend race. He was born here and he journeyed in a very human environment. It’s something to be mindful of, that he was a black Catholic, but now that he’s in that communion of saints it transcends that.”



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Contributing to this story was Catholic News Service


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