March 14, 2010
A saint for Chicago? The archdiocese is introducing a cause for canonization for Father Augustus Tolton, the first black priest for the United States
Father John Augustus Tolton was the first American priest of African descent and may one day be a saint from the Archdiocese of Chicago. At the beginning of March, Cardinal George announced that the archdiocese is introducing Father Augustus — also called Augustus — Tolton’s cause for canonization.
Why Father Tolton? Why now?
“It is appropriate that, during this Year for Priests, we recall our forebears who were holy men in the presbyterate of the Archdiocese of Chicago,” Cardinal George told the Catholic New World.
Father Tolton was born into slavery. His parents, Peter and Martha Tolton, were slaves living in Brush Creek, Mo. They were married in a Catholic ceremony and had three children: Charles, Augustus and Anne. Augustus was born into the Catholic faith. His baptismal records at St. Peter’s Church in Sidney, Mo., read “A colored child born April 1, 1854. Son of Peter Tolton and Martha Chisley, Property of Stephen Eliot,” according to “From Slave to Priest,” a biography of Father Tolton’s life by Sister Caroline Hemesath.
During the Civil War, Peter Tolton escaped to St. Louis, Mo., to serve in the Union Army. Shortly after, when Augustus was nine, Martha Tolton bundled up her three children and escaped across the Mississippi River and hiked to Quincy, Ill., which at the time was a sanctuary for runaway slaves. After the war ended, Mrs. Tolton learned that her husband was among the dead soldiers. He died soon after his arrival in St. Louis of dysentery.
In Quincy, Mrs. Tolton and her sons began working in a cigar factory and they attended Mass at St. Boniface Church with other black Catholics. Quincy also was a German community so Augustus eventually picked up German. His brother Charley, 10, died in 1863.
Trouble at school
When Augustus was 11, his mother enrolled him in St. Boniface School during the winter months when work at the cigar factory dropped off. His mother pulled him from school after only one month when the parish priest and sisters received harassment and anonymous threats because of Augustus’s presence.
His mother enrolled him in public school. But three years later, the pastor of nearby St. Peter’s Church told Augustus and his mother that the boy could attend St. Peter’s School. Here he became an altar server.
It was during this time that Augustus began to feel he had a vocation to the priesthood. Father Peter McGirr, the pastor at St. Peter’s, approached Augustus about the idea and helped him along this journey, a journey that would be difficult and have many roadblocks.
They wrote to all the seminaries in the United States, according to “From Slave to Priest” and received negative responses. They also tried the Franciscans and Josephites to no avail. Meanwhile, several of the local priests took to educating and training Augustus for the seminary on the side.
After several years, they appealed to the College of the Propagation of the Faith in Rome, a pontifical college that trained and ordained priests for missionary work around the world. They thought Augustus could become a missionary in Africa.
In February of 1880, Augustus left for Rome. After six years of study, he was ordained on April 24, 1886, at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome. The day before his ordination, which was Good Friday, there was a change in plans. Augustus would not be ministering in Africa. Instead, officials of the college felt he should be a missionary in his own country. They felt it was time America had its own black priest.
According to reports, this devastated Father Tolton because he knew the climate he was going back to and the amount of racism he would face in America. But he went, uniting his future suffering with Jesus. Father Tolton returned to Quincy and celebrated his first Mass at home on July 18, 1886, at St. Boniface Church. He was assigned pastor of St. Joseph Church, a black parish affiliated with St. Boniface.
Despite fervent efforts to minister to his congregation, racism and anti-Catholicism hindered his ministry. Soon it all intensified and Father Tolton appealed to his superiors to accept an invitation from Archbishop Patrick Feehan in Chicago to minister to black Catholics here. His appeal was finally granted. Father Tolton boarded a train for Chicago in December 1889.
Off to Chicago
At the time, St. Mary Church at Ninth and Wabash was the hub for black Catholics in Chicago. In 1882 they celebrated their first Mass as a congregation in the church’s basement. It became known as St. Augustus Church after the name of the St. Augustus Society, the black Catholic apostolate in the archdiocese.
Once the apostolate had its own priest, their numbers swelled and they needed a church of their own. Archbishop Feehan granted permission for Father Tolton to open a storefront church in the 2200 block of South Indiana in 1891, which would later be known as St. Monica’s Church.
In the early 1890s, Father Tolton and the now-St. Katharine Drexel corresponded and St. Katharine’s community provided financial support for Father Tolton’s Chicago parish.
Father Tolton worked tirelessly for his congregation in Chicago, to the point of exhaustion, and on July 9, 1897 he died of heat stroke while returning from a priests’ retreat. He was 43. His death shocked the black Catholic community of the city and left a hole at St. Monica’s. Father Tolton’s body was returned to Quincy for burial in St. Peter’s Cemetery, where it remains today.
While Father Tolton died more than 100 years ago, his legacy and witness to the Gospel lives on. So much so that the archdiocese is putting together his cause for canonization.
Having Father Tolton as a saint for the whole Catholic Church but, in particular, Catholics in Chicago would be a blessing.
“First of all, saints intercede,” Cardinal George said. “ We need his prayers and his help, especially to become a more united church. Secondly, his example of priestly dedication, his learning and preaching, are great examples for our seminarians and priests and should inspire the laity.”
Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry is organizing Father Tolton’s cause for the archdiocese. He said he is now pouring through lots of archival material to prepare a report about Father Tolton’s life that will go to Cardinal George and then on to the Holy See and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
In Father Tolton’s case, this will be termed an “ancient” cause because there are no living witnesses to the candidate’s life and all research comes after the fact, Bishop Perry explained, adding that “I think we have enough material for Rome’s initial examination.”
Bishop Perry’s office is putting together a holy card with a prayer to God for intercession for Father Tolton’s cause that will be distributed throughout the archdiocese.
“We are trying to find out what devotion to Father Tolton exists,” the bishop said.
The courageous priest lived a life of virtue worthy of imitation.
“Father Tolton worked valiantly in this city and in Quincy and through it all remained a faithful and dutiful priest and Catholic,” the bishop said. “He didn’t leave. He stuck with it.”
Father Tolton is an example for all Catholics because he represents the highest ideal that we desire in our priests, Bishop Perry said.
“His quiet witness is a challenge to our prejudices and narrow mindedness that keeps us insulated from the variety in the kingdom of God,” he said.
There is much work ahead before Father Tolton can be approved as a saint for the Catholic Church, the ultimate approval residing with the pope. A historical commission will be established to analyze his life and a theologian will analyze his life of virtue, among other things. Eventually, Bishop Perry said, a foundation for the cause will be set up to help divert the expenses involved in gathering all the data and doing the extensive interviews.
Whether or not, Father Tolton becomes a saint in the eyes of the church, he is already a strong witness to the Gospel to many Catholics in Chicago, and black Catholics in the United States.
Much of the historic background on Father Tolton’s life came from “From Slave to Priest: A biography of Reverend Augustus Tolton, the first black priest of the United States,” by Sister Caroline Hemesath (Ignatius Press).