The Archdiocese of Chicago has begun a new phase of the investigation that could ultimately canonize Fr. Augustus Tolton. As the first African-American to become a priest, Fr. Tolton demonstrated remarkable patience, courage and dedication to his ministry during a time of widespread injustice.
Approximately a year after it opened Fr. Tolton's cause, the archdiocese formally began the proceedings to examine the 19th century priest's life, virtues and reputation for holiness. The process requires a canonical trial, which will hold its first session on the afternoon of Feb. 24 at St. James Chapel in downtown Chicago.
Chicago's Cardinal Archbishop Francis E. George will preside over the public event, at which Bishop Joseph N. Perry – the Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago, who is the postulator of Fr. Tolton's cause for sainthood – will introduce evidence of Fr. Tolton's faithful life and holiness. The proceeding will also feature the appointment of officials who will evaluate Fr. Tolton's reputation and the facts of his life.
The judgment of those officials, in conjunction with the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, could lead to the next step in Tolton's cause: his designation as a “Servant of God.” After this, a declaration of “heroic virtue” would establish him as “Venerable.”
Further evidence of his miraculous intercession would be needed for Fr. Tolton to become a saint of the Church. Bishop Perry told CNA on Feb. 22 that at least one such possible occurrence is already under consideration, from the reports that the archdiocese is continuing to receive from the faithful.
In the short term, however, Bishop Perry is less occupied with possible miracles, and more interested in making the case for Fr. Tolton as a model of Christian virtue.
According to Bishop Perry, the key to understanding Fr. Tolton's life is in recognizing his “long-suffering perseverance, in the face of what you might call 'racial apartheid'.”
“His adult life was lived largely through the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War,” the bishop noted. “The nation had no program to assimilate blacks in society, following the Emancipation Proclamation. Anyone who was emerging as an accomplished black person, suffered – and was, more than likely, not accepted.”
Augustus Tolton was born into slavery, and baptized into the Catholic Church, in Missouri during 1854. His parents were Catholics, as were their owners.
His father, Peter Paul Tolton, died in 1861 after fleeing Missouri to join the Union Army at the beginning of the Civil War. Along with his mother and siblings, Augustus escaped to Illinois, where they were no longer slaves.
But freedom did not entail equality, even within the Church. Outraged German-American parishioners forced him to withdraw from their parish school.
At age 14, the former slave had to begin a remedial education. But he received encouragement from an Irish priest, Fr. Peter McGirr, who admitted him to his parish school. He eventually encouraged the devout young man to consider the priesthood.
However, no Catholic seminary in the United States would accept a black student. For years Augustus worked various manual jobs, while using his off-hours to assist at Mass and teach religion to black Catholics in the town of Quincy, Ill.
Finally, 1880, he was accepted to study in Rome – where it was assumed he would train to become a missionary in Africa. Augustus studied African languages and cultures for six years in Rome.
Then, on the night before his ordination, the plan changed unexpectedly. He was told he would be ordained as a priest for the United States.
The Italian Cardinal Simeoni told him: “America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world. We shall see if it deserves that honor.”
“If the United States has never before seen a black priest,” the cardinal said, “it must see one now!”
Bishop Perry explained that in the town of Quincy, where Fr. Tolton was sent back after his ordination, “racial separation was the norm at the time.”
“There were three Catholic churches – a German one, an Irish one, and one that they began for blacks.”
Many churches of the time did not allow blacks to receive Communion at Mass in a “white” church, where they would be segregated to the balcony.
“A lot of them didn't go to Communion at all,” Bishop Perry recalled. “It was not allowed, to kneel at the Communion railing next to a white person. If there wasn't a balcony, most churches had a roped off section with a few pews for blacks to sit in.”
“It's contrary to everything the Gospel stands for,” the bishop stated. “But racial separation was taken practically as a religion in itself.”
Amid this environment of reflexive racism, Fr. Augustus was charged with preaching the Gospel.
“Some folks thought whites, even though they were Catholic, should have nothing to do with his church,” Bishop Perry recounted. “Other whites went to his Masses – they found him an attractive speaker and preacher, and went to him for Confession.”
“A priest in a German parish told him, in no uncertain terms, that he should restrict himself to the blacks. He took his complaint to the local bishop – and was reprimanded.”
“Fr. Tolton responded by saying that the Church is open to everyone, and we shouldn't tell anyone they can't come in. He was told that if he could not obey, it was best that he leave town.”
After a subsequent dispute, which forced him to do so, he found that a group of black Catholics in Chicago – who worshiped in a church basement – also needed a pastor.
The Archbishop of Chicago welcomed him. But, as Bishop Perry noted, Fr. Tolton's new ministry was “largely confined to the south side of the city – the tenement houses, and the rather poor area occupied by freed blacks and escaped slaves.”
Fr. Tolton died of heat stroke, at the age of 43, in 1897. By that time, however, he had already become a revered leader of the black Catholic community in Chicago.
Some of the descendants of his former parishioners have volunteered their testimony to Bishop Perry, recounting family stories of encounters with the beloved priest who was known as “Father Gus.”
Simply being the first black Catholic priest in America, Bishop Perry said, “doesn't make him a saint.” What does, in Bishop Perry's estimation, is the manner in which he lived out his priesthood.
“A priest is supposed to be a servant to all. As a priest, Fr. Tolton was always open and receptive to everyone – although even the Church did not always allow him to be a priest in that way.”
“He tried to improve the culture. But the culture was so resistant – it almost made his priesthood impossible. Society, and the Church, threw a lot of 'nos' at him: 'We can't take you, we can't accept you'.”
Now, Bishop Perry and the Archdiocese of Chicago hope the universal Church will uphold Fr. Augustus Tolton as an example for priests, and for all the faithful.
“We're hoping that, after all the 'nos' he had to endure in life, this time the Church will say 'yes'.”