America’s First Black Priest Moves Toward Sainthood

first black priest Father Augustus Tolton
Archdiocese of Chicago Archives

ROME — Pope Francis has placed the first American black Catholic priest on track for sainthood, declaring him to be “venerable” on Wednesday.

Father Augustine Tolton’s (1854-1897) new titled of “venerable” signifies that the Church has scrutinized his life and found that he practiced “heroic virtue,” a condition for beatification and canonization.

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 later studied for the priesthood in Rome since blacks were not accepted in U.S. seminaries at the time. He was ordained a priest on April 4, 1886 at the Pope’s cathedral — the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome — and celebrated his first Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Easter Sunday 1886.

“Today’s news is not only exciting for Catholics across the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, but also for the entire Christian world,” said Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of the Springfield Diocese.

“Father Tolton’s story, from slave to priest, is an incredible journey that shows how God has a plan for all of us,” he said. “Father Tolton overcame the odds of slavery, prejudice, and racism, to become a humble priest and someone we should model our lives after.”

Five years ago, the Archdiocese of Chicago closed the final diocesan phase of the investigation into the life and virtues of Father Tolton and sent his case on to Rome.

At the time, the late Cardinal Francis George wished to personally preside over the closing ceremony of the process despite his poor health, saying he believed 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.

“Many Catholics might not ever have heard of Fr. Augustus Tolton, but black Catholics most probably have,” the cardinal said in 2010.

“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.’”

After 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.

The sainthood process will now turn toward the verification of a miracle attributed to Father Tolton’s intercession, at which point the pope may declare him “blessed,” a procedure known as beatification. Authorities in Rome are reportedly already reviewing at least one potential miracle

The Diocese of Springfield in Illinois announced it may establish a shrine to honor Venerable Tolton, floating as a possible location the St. Boniface Church in Quincy, which is presently closed.

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