Venerable Augustus Tolton, the first identified black priest ordained for the United States, would be disappointed by what he sees going on in the United States today. That is the thought of Father David Jones, pastor of St. Benedict the African Parish in Englewood.
“I think ‘disappointed’ is a key word. I think people can understand that and it helps to tie into the frustration that black people are feeling and always experiencing.” Jones said.
It is frustration with the slowness of American society and more so the lack need or desire from the majority to break down racial divides.
The Archdiocese of Chicago opened Tolton’s cause for canonization in 2010 and Pope Francis named him venerable in June 2019. Two steps of the process remain — beatification and canonization.
As the first black priest ordained for the United States, Tolton struggled against rampant racism in the years following the Civil War, but was known for bringing people of all races together. For that, he was persecuted by his brother priests and people in the white community of Quincy, Illinois.
Father Augustus 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 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 heat wave 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.
For more on his life and cause, visit tolton.archchicago.org.
In many ways, the unity Tolton worked for is still out of reach in the church and society, Jones said.
“I think the vast majority of Americans in particular are satisfied,” he said. “The fact that there is a segment that is disenfranchised and can’t get satisfaction — that’s a clue for all of us that what we’re satisfied with may be our biggest problem.”
The Gospel calls Catholics to be aware of the injustice that some people are missing from the picture.
“We sit in churches on Sundays and we’re OK with how segregated we are in church,” Jones said. “That shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t be OK.”
Since the church is about unity, racial divides shouldn’t exist in church.
“Something about church should just not make that happen. Not because we’re trying for the right optic but because that’s how we’re living out the Gospel. It shouldn’t be accidental,” Jones said. “It should be like divine intervention, like if you’re Catholic you’re not likely to be in an all-white picture or an all-black picture. And if you are, there is something about the way that you are limiting your experience of the faith.”
In some cases, there are things we can do now to address these problems, such as with liturgical music.
“You know we have very little in our Catholic resource of liturgical music for pastoral purposes that comes from African American composers. So we always, from this part of this part of the world, have to go the Protestant community to get music and fit it into a Catholic liturgy,” Jones said. “We can do better than that.”
Tolton’s example of welcoming people of all races to Mass makes sense to Jones.
“That sense of Tolton ministering to blacks and whites without making a distinction, that’s a very favorable understanding of black culture,” he said. “I’m not saying that black people can’t have ill will towards people who are non-black or white, but that’s not the impulse of the black community.”
For Tolton, being integrated was just being Catholic.
“I know that of the history I hear of the Archdiocese of Chicago, that happened within my lifetime, there are still lots of [black] folks who are Catholic who tell you the stories about what was said to them when they tried to go to Mass at a certain parish,” he said. “I think the point of that, that Tolton ministered to blacks and whites, without discrimination is in the contrast of then and now as well as the contrast of how we are welcomed differently depending on the color or your skin and the color of the skin of the one who is in position to engage or disengage.”
Being catholic by definition means universal and being a community together. These are thoughts Tolton must have had too, Jones said.
“That’s the kingdom. That’s when we’ve done it,” he said. “As long as we’re still being part American and part Catholic, we’re getting the smaller portion. We’re not receiving the fullness of what we’re being offered.”
Bishop Joseph Perry, postulator of Tolton’s cause for canonization, believes Tolton can be an example for people during this time of racial division.
“In him, I think we see a priest-pioneer of reconciliation,” Bishop Perry said. “We hope that he looks down upon us and sees this as a wounded country from his place amongst the saints and angels. I think this is where we can plead for mercy and holy assistance from him in this time of racial crisis.”
He is also an example for what it means to be a Catholic.
“He really had a love for the Catholic Church. He believed that the Catholic Church had the means, really, to unite people of every race and give everybody the dignity that’s due everyone,” he said. “His own pastoral practice drew men and women of whatever skin tone together under one roof and that’s what got him into trouble down in Quincy.”
Tolton did not dwell upon anger or resentments. Instead, he turned his energies to assisting the neediest people around him in Quincy and Chicago.
“I think his perseverance and his stamina presents him as a symbol of peace, a symbol of neighborly regard that we’re trying to grab on to,” Bishop Perry said.
There is much work to be done today and one area where Bishop Perry noted the church can help effect change is “spatial racism,” which relegates poor people of color to living in certain neighborhoods.
“Chicago is known to be one of the most segregated cities in the country. We’re playing this racial hopscotch all the time, where as soon as blacks or Hispanics move in whites move out. And it never stops,” he said. “Are we saying enough in our pulpits about it? Are we saying enough in our religious education programs with young people?”
The law says people have to work and live together equally, but at the end of the day everyone goes home to their racially segregated neighborhoods, he said.
“Even our Sunday worship is divided,” he said. “This whole experience of single-racial parishes we should understand is really kind of abnormal. They don’t echo the Pentecost event, which started the church to begin with.”
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and they were able to preach in the various languages of people gathered in Jerusalem, people who looked different from one another. They were all united around Christ.
“You’d think for all of our education, our own social awareness and for all of the ease of communications that we have, that some of these boundaries and borders between us and amongst us would have been erased,” Bishop Perry said. “But it seems to have stirred more fear of people towards one another, unfortunately.”
As a black woman living in the Chicago area, Valerie Jennings, an archdiocesan parish vitality coordinator, has experienced that fear all of her life.
“I think the greatest sadness of all of this is people run from us because of the pigmentation of our skin,” Jennings said.
She spoke of a recent encounter with a white woman while she was out with her husband walking their small dog in the largely white affluent suburb where she lives. Jennings was a safe distance away from the woman but when the woman saw her and her dog, the woman yelled at her to keep her dog away and shouted “You people, what are you doing here?”
It’s an encounter that still puzzles and troubles her. Jennings also talked of experiences attending Mass at white parishes as the only black person in the congregation.
“You try to say good morning and they just give you this look. I don’t know what they are thinking. It’s very unwelcoming,” she said. “I can see how these single-race parishes came to be because white people didn’t want us around them. When I think of what happened to Father Tolton in Quincy, they did not want him anywhere around them. He was basically chased away.”
Jennings says Tolton would be wondering why more hasn’t been done to embrace people of all races since his time.
“We have an opportunity right now to change the narrative and the experience of Father Tolton and what he had to experience by really and truly uniting because we’re not united,” she said. “We have an opportunity to really and truly be a universal church right now. I see more universality in the marches going on right now than I see on Sunday morning.”
She thinks Tolton might see the positive too in the peaceful protests for racial justice.
“I’m hoping that Father Tolton is clapping his hands and jumping for joy saying, ‘See my people and not just black people — but see my people.’”
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