“He has been looked upon as a founder, if you will, of the black Catholic community of the Archdiocese of Chicago,” Andrew Lyke, director of the archdiocesan Office for Black Catholics, told CNA April 15.
In 2010, the archdiocese opened Fr. Tolton's cause for canonization, investigating his life and virtues, and he is currently a Servant of God, the first step on the road to being declared a saint.
Fr. Tolton was born a slave in Missouri in 1854 to a Catholic mother, named Martha Jane. She escaped with her children to Illinois. Tolton attended seminary in Rome and was ordained a priest there in 1886 – serving first in Quincy, Illinois and then in Chicago.
In Chicago he founded a black national parish, Saint Monica's, and was very successful in ministering to the city's African-American community. He died in 1897 from heat stroke and heart failure at the age of 43.
“The cause (for canonization) takes his memory to a different level of spiritual intimacy, as someone we pray to and seek intercession from,” Lyke stated.
“Our hope is...that this helps to strengthen our black Catholic identity,” he said, adding that the black community remains “marginal” within the Chicago archdiocese.
“This cause for canonization becomes something to bolster that identity within us, but it's also something from our community that we can share with the broader archdiocese – it's something very rich.”
“Though it's from us, it's not just for us; its for the whole Church. So it's a major contribution from the black Catholic community of Chicago,” Lyke said.
The cause is important for the Chicago archdiocese, he said, because Fr. Tolton is “a saint from our community. He served here in Chicago, so that's something to stick our chests out for.”
Lyke is also hopeful that the advancement of Fr. Tolton's cause will contribute towards the healing of racial problems still afflicting America.
“I'm not aware of any saint of the Church who comes from that history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the U.S. This is a wound on our American conscience that I think we haven't adequately addressed.”
“Having a saint of the Church who comes from that, it gives us a new focus, an opportunity to re-dress some of that ignoble past,” Lyke reflected.
“Tolton' story, the cause and hopefully canonization, will lift that up, and help us to remember the nightmare of America so that we can better live the dream.”
Fr. Tolton, he said, is “with us now, intercedes for us now, but this is part of that legacy that we...remember.”
Lyke hopes also that Fr. Tolton's cause will help to promote vocations within Chicago's black community. After Fr. Tolton's death, he said, the archdiocese did not have another black priest until the 1950s, and “the black priests of today are predominantly African.”
“That's part of what we're trying to promote, in terms of fostering priestly vocations from the community. We need to win over African-American families,” he said.
A question that must be asked in order to foster these vocations, however, is: “are you willing to make the Catholic priesthood a viable option in your son's life?” Lyke asked.
“There's hard challenges around that, for any family, but I do think we need to look at fresh approaches, and Tolton's cause lifts that up.”
“His story is one of heroism, and it helps that cause of priestly vocations from the African-American community. It gives us something to wrap our arms around.”
Lyke's office holds an annual event each autumn to raise funds for Fr. Tolton's canonization in which a Martha Jane Tolton award is given to a woman of the Chicago community.
He noted the “dedication and courage” of Fr. Tolton's mother, and that those same qualities are honored in the recipient of the award each year.
The Chicago pilgrimage remembering Fr. Tolton's life will take place May 11, and will include presentations by Bishop Joseph Perry, and auxiliary of the Chicago archdiocese and postulator of Fr. Tolton's cause.
“We pray at those places,” Lyke explained, and “the narrative presented during the pilgrimage and the prayers offered really help us engage in his memory, and makes each particular site so significant.”
Lyke said that he encourages people to “not just study Tolton and know his story as a historical reference...but develop a spiritual intimacy with him by praying to him and asking for his intercession.”
“It's only since the cause of canonization started, where I've really worked on that spiritual intimacy, that I feel as though I've gotten to know Tolton,” he reflected.
“His personality is now something on my heart, and I think that's whats going to be demanded of the community if this cause for canonization is going to be successful.”
In honor of Father Augustus Tolton, the first African-American priest in the U.S., the Chicago archdiocese is holding a pilgrimage in May which will visit sites associated with his life and ministry.