Born into slavery and later ordained in Rome, the first African-American diocesan priest has just taken a big step toward being recognized as a Catholic saint.
On Monday, the Archdiocese of Chicago closed the final diocesan phase of the investigation into the life and virtues of Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897).
The ceremony took place on the feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, with a large group of the faithful from the Dioceses of Springfield, Illinois and Jefferson City, Missouri in attendance.
Cardinal Francis George wished to preside personally over the closing ceremony of the process despite his poor health, saying he believes that promoting Fr. Tolton’s cause for sainthood was one of the most important things he did in all his years as Archbishop of Chicago.
As Cardinal George wrote in 2010: “Many Catholics might not ever have heard of Fr. Augustus Tolton, but black Catholics most probably have.”
At the ceremony, Bishop Joseph Perry, the “postulator” of Tolton’s cause for sainthood, gave a report on the progress of the four-year study and spoke of Tolton’s reputation of holiness.
Born into a family of slaves, Tolton’s baptismal record doesn’t even mention his name but simply reads: “A colored child, born April 1, 1854, son of Peter Tolton and Martha Chisley, property of Stephen Eliot; Mrs. Stephen Eliot, sponsor; May 29, 1854. (signed) Father John O’Sullivan.”
Tolton was ordained a priest on April 4, 1886 at the Pope’s cathedral–the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome. He celebrated his first Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on April 25, 1886, Easter Sunday.
Augustus Tolton entered the seminary with the intention of going as missionary to Africa, but the day before his ordination, his superior, Cardinal Simeoni, told Augustus that he was being sent back to the United States, to the Diocese of Alton, Illinois, his home diocese.
“It was said that I would be the only priest of my race in America and would not likely succeed,” Tolton once wrote. But “Cardinal Simeoni said, ‘America has been called the most enlightened nation; we’ll see if it deserves that honor. If America has never seen a black priest, it has to see one now.'”
On moving later to Chicago, “Father Gus,” as he was called, started the first officially recognized African-American Catholic parish in the country–Saint Monica’s, named after the mother of Saint Augustine, Father Tolton’s patron saint.
At that time, Father Tolton maintained a correspondence with the future saint Mother Katharine Drexel, who founded educational institutions for blacks and American Indians. Mother Drexel was canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000.
Tolton died during a heat wave in Chicago in July of 1897, and his body is buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Quincy, where he wished to be buried.
The voluminous documentation comprising the study of Tolton’s life was bound with red ribbon and stamped with the official seal of the Archdiocese of Chicago in melted wax, to be sent to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican. A new process will now begin to move the priest toward beatification.