SPECIAL TO THE CATHOLIC HERALD
The first African-American priest in the U.S. could become the country’s first African-American saint, as his cause recently took another step forward.
A document summarizing the life, virtue and alleged miracles of Fr. Augustus Tolton, known as the positio, was unanimously approved as historically correct by a committee of six historical consultants to the Congregation of Causes of Saints in Rome last March, clearing the way for the priest’s cause for canonization to continue moving forward.
Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry, who was ordained in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 1975, is postulator of the cause of Fr. Tolton, who has the title “servant of God” at this stage in his cause.
The Missouri native escaped slave owners with two siblings and his mother, Martha Jane, during the Civil War from Brush Creek, Missouri, to Quincy, Illinois, via the Underground Railroad. Thanks to a local priest, Fr. Peter McGirr, Fr. Tolton later received a Catholic school education despite the objection of those who opposed his being taught in a classroom with white students.
With the assistance of the Franciscan Friars, Fr. Tolton studied in Rome at the Propaganda Seminary and Urban College because no American seminary would admit him. He was ordained there in 1886, expecting to serve the African missions. Instead, he was directed to return to the United States to minister to black Catholics here. Known for his eloquent homilies, Fr. Tolton also displayed great determination in his ministry as he successfully led the development and construction of St. Monica’s Catholic Church as a black “national church” on Chicago’s South Side. He died July 9, 1897, from heat stroke during a heat wave that claimed more than 60 lives. He was just 43.
According to Bishop Perry, we live in a society that rejects the idea of deriving meaning from setback, suffering, misery and tragedy. We are taught to believe that by merely living the good life, we will receive blessings and abundance. Finding blessing in life’s misfortunes is challenging for most, but, he said, it is the storyline of our salvation and the Good News of the Gospel we try to grasp each Sunday and the days in-between.
“Fr. Augustus Tolton shows us in his own life’s pattern that we can find blessing in everything, even what is most painful. The saints have modeled for us how to embrace the joys and the sorrows of life. Similarly, Fr. Tolton’s story is one of suffering service,” he explained. “Through his experience of racial negation by a society that would separate black and white by the force of the law Tolton found the love of God, found his own vocation and ultimately has received his reward from God as a pioneer figure of Christian faith in action, love of neighbor and pastoral charity despite the bigotry that was thrown back at him. The record of his life does not reveal retaliation toward anyone or anything.”
Bishop Perry also said that the mild-mannered and self-effacing, Fr. Tolton shows us how to work through fear, doubt, hurt, disappointment and sadness. He helps us see these experiences through the prism of the Lord’s own sufferings to redeem a people. Fr. Tolton was a model Christian and priest during a time of contradiction in the county, a time of social deficits that attempted to derail his priestly ministry.
“Suffering service was Fr. Tolton’s spirituality,” he said. “Despite what was thrown at him, he never lost his love for the Catholic Church and was able to pardon those who wronged him. His ministry was conspicuously tailored to both black and white at a time when society and the Church were not ready to see evangelical possibilities of diverse peoples living and worshipping in the same space. Tolton’s beatification and canonization will situate the story of African American Catholics alongside other ethnic groupings of Catholicism and their suffering journeys as being worthy of notice and enriching the vast variety that is Roman Catholicism. Black Catholics in the United States will have arrived at an honored place in the Catholic Church.”
Fr. Tolton’s courageous life is an example of persevering under great odds. He ministered and cared for people despite race or condition, and maintained a humble and obedient spirit in the face of indifference and the scourge of racism, explained Bishop Perry.
“The Canonization of Fr. Augustus Tolton will register as a milestone that one of our race, an African American, has reached the altars, whose name can be invoked in the litanies with all other saints and during the celebration of the Eucharist, meaning that the Catholic Church will have delivered a strong signal of recognizing the saga of black Catholics witnessed over these many centuries,” said Bishop Perry. “For me, it will mean an endorsement of the effort over the years to raise aloft Tolton’s story as a young black man worthy of the Church’s notice and an affirmation of Tolton’s suffering experience amidst society and church that was ambivalent about his worth as a human being and as a priest.”