Parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Chicago will have the opportunity to follow more closely in the footsteps of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton with the creation of the Tolton Spirituality Center.
The center, envisioned as both an information clearinghouse and community hub, received a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, it was announced Dec. 2. It is designed for parishes and community institutions to share their insights and practices that encourage living with the values and virtues that defined Tolton’s life and ministry.
The idea came from parishioners at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish, 5472 S. Kimbark Ave., and St. Ambrose Parish, 1012 E. 47th St.
The center’s offices will be housed at St. Thomas the Apostle, and all events will be conducted over online platforms for the foreseeable future.
Bishop Joseph Perry, who has been the diocesan postulator for the cause of Tolton’s sainthood since the cause was opened in 2011, said all Catholics have a lot to learn from Tolton’s story: born into a family enslaved on a Missouri plantation, escaping across the Mississippi with his mother and siblings as a child, dedicating himself to his faith and Catholic education and pursuing a vocation even when seminaries in the United States would not accept Black students.
He went to seminary in Rome and was ordained there, expecting to be sent as a missionary to Africa. Instead, he was sent home to Quincy, Illinois, but faced opposition from white Catholic leaders, who didn’t like that some of their parishioners preferred his sermons and donated to his church, according to the biography “From Slave to Priest,” by Caroline Hemesath.
Archbishop Patrick Feehan invited Tolton to minister in Chicago in 1889, first ministering to a small Black congregation that met in the basement of Old St. Mary’s Church.
“In a couple of years, it blossomed into a congregation of 600 people and a national parish for Black Catholics here at St. Monica,” Bishop Perry said.
St. Monica later merged with St. Elizabeth Parish, 50 E. 41st St.
When Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington, D.C., was a priest in Chicago, “he had the privilege of talking to some elderly Black Catholics who knew of Tolton and whose families knew of Tolton,” who died in 1897, Bishop Perry said.
“The whole idea is to capture the idea of our first African American priest and the virtues that steered his life,” Bishop Perry said. “Father Tolton had such a tender disposition about himself, it was attractive for everyone. Much of his life and spirit is still pretty tangible for many black Catholics not only here but across the United States. Father Tolton loved the church that rescued him in his youth, that despite some pretty long odds ended up launching him into the pages of church history.”
Norbertine Father Gerard Jordan, a special assistant to Bishop Perry for Tolton’s canonization cause who spearheaded the grant effort for the Tolton Spirituality Center, said Tolton was able to help his church grow even in difficult circumstances, something all parishes in the archdiocese can learn from now.
The Tolton Spirituality Center has its board of directors in place and is in the process of hiring staff, Bishop Perry and Jordan said. Jordan hopes to send invitations to participate in the center to every parish in the archdiocese by next spring.
“The purpose is to put together a cohort of learning parishes and to identify some community partners,” Jordan said. “We want to build intentional connections together and help parishes begin to thrive.”
Building thriving parishes is also the goal of Renew My Church, the archdiocesan initiative that calls for restructuring archdiocesan parishes and includes closing and combining some parishes as a way to better use resources and build communities of missionary disciples.
The Tolton Spirituality Center supports that effort, Jordan said, and can help parishes focus on the graces they have received even during difficult times.
“Father Tolton’s life was a life of beautiful grace through long suffering,” Jordan said. “For Christians, without the cross, there is no resurrection. Throughout his entire life, Father Tolton identified the graces and he never abandoned the opportunity to receive those graces. We’re going to take the life of Father Tolton and put it into practical application.”
Bishop Perry said Tolton is a worthy model for all Catholics.
“We still need models and examples of holy Christian lives these days,” he said. “They are needed inspirations for these times. I think we’d be in the throes of despair if we didn’t have these people to look back on.”
When churches reopened for Masses last June, a handful of parishes with access to large parking lots got creative and started holding car Masses for those especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Despite the cold weather and lots of snow this year, those Masses continue to take place.
Parishes across the Chicago area had been sheltering homeless people for more than 30 years when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. Faced with suddenly being unable to accommodate overnight guests, many of them pivoted to providing food instead.
The Archdiocese of Chicago announced updates on the Edens Valley and Logan Square/Avondale Renew My Church groupings on Jan. 20.