A man who rose from slavery in Northeast Missouri to become the first black Catholic priest in America may one day be a saint.


A man who rose from slavery in Northeast Missouri to become the first black Catholic priest in America may one day be a saint.
Cardinal Francis E. George of the Archdiocese of Chicago has announced that Father John Augustine Tolton has been introduced for canonization.
Father Mike Quinn of Holy Family Catholic Church in Hannibal grew up in the same area as Tolton, and calls him “a giant of the Lord.”
“I think it’s just such a wonderful gift to have someone who grew up here, with lots of prejudice and disadvantages, to be considered for sainthood,” Quinn said. “He’s an example of someone who, despite all the odds, made a difference.”
Hannibal educator W.T. Johnson, who has brought Tolton to life through extensively researched, one-man performances around the area, said the honor would be a chance for more people to “clearly understand this man did wonderful things and went unrecognized.”
“It’s well-deserved,” Johnson said. “To me, he was a man that endured and was able to overcome a lot of obstacles in his life.”
George told the Catholic New World, the Chicago Archdiocese’s newspaper, that sainthood for Tolton would be good on several levels.
“First of all, saints intercede,” George told the newspaper. “We need his prayers and his help, especially to become a more united church. Secondly, his example of priestly dedication, his learning and preaching, are great examples for our seminarians and priests and should inspire the laity.”
George also said it “is appropriate that … we recall our forebears who were holy men in” the church.

Early life
Tolton was born into slavery on April 1, 1854, in the tiny community of Brush Creek south of Monroe City.
His parents, Peter and Martha Tolton, were owned by Savilla and Stephen Elliott, who had come from Kentucky.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Peter Tolton joined the Union Army, but later died of dysentery. Martha Tolton moved the couple’s three children to Quincy, Ill., in 1862 to escape slavery.
They made it across the Mississippi River even though three Confederate soldiers saw them get into a rickety boat and fired a shot as they paddled away.
“John, boy, you’re free,” the Website of St. Elizabeth’s Church in Chicago quoted his mother as saying when the family made it to Illinois. “Never forget the goodness of the Lord.”
The family worked in a Quincy cigar factory and Tolton entered St. Boniface School in 1865. He left after a month when the parish and its staff received anonymous threats due to his attendance.
With the help of Father Peter McGirr, Tolton entered St. Peter School in 1868 and received his first Communion in 1870 at age 16 on the Feast of Corpus Christi. McGirr had a significant impact on Tolton’s decision to become a priest.
Tolton graduated from St. Peter in 1872 and enrolled at St. Francis College, now known as Quincy University, in 1878.
He was an excellent student, and wanted to pursue the priesthood. However, the 1973 biography “From Slave to Priest” by Sister Caroline Hemesath said racism again reared its ugly head.
The book, reissued by Ignatius Press in 2007, said no seminary in America would accept Tolton because of his skin color, and both the Franciscans and the Josephites rejected him.
“He had a real strong faith, a faith I, myself, have a hard time understanding,” Johnson said. “He continued to speak out and be an advocate for the poor, the elderly and those who didn’t have anything.”

On to Rome
On Feb. 15, 1880, Tolton left for Italy to enter the seminary at the Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide in Rome.
On April 24, 1886, Tolton was ordained at St. John Lateran Basilica. He had hoped to become an African missionary, but was told he would be going back to Illinois.
The priest returned to the Quincy church where his youthful presence had generated threats and celebrated his first Mass on July 18, 1886. The St. Elizabeth’s Website says he was greeted “like a conquering hero” by McGirr and a throng of others at the train station.
“A brass band played church songs and Negro spirituals,” according to the Website. “Thousands of blacks and whites lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the new priest wearing a black Prince Albert and a silk hat.  People marched and cheered his flower-draped, four-horse carriage.  Children, priests and sisters left the school, joining the procession heading towards the church.”
Tolton was named pastor of St. Joseph, a black parish affiliated with St. Boniface.
“He became a wonderful preacher,” Quinn said. “He didn’t pass on the prejudice he experienced. People loved him because he had the love of Christ. People are drawn to that. They experienced the presence of a holy man.”
Despite his successes, Tolton still felt the sting of racism and anti-Catholicism. He asked for a transfer to Chicago and it was granted in December 1889.
Tolton accepted Archbishop Patrick Feehan’s invitation for him to minister to black Catholics. In 1891, construction began on St. Monica Church at the corner of 36th and Dearborn. The first services were held two years later, even though the roof wasn’t finished..
“Father Tolton’s basement congregation of 30 grew quickly once they moved into their new church,” according to the St. Elizabeth’s Website.  “He moved to a small home behind the church, where his mother and sister kept house for him.  The surrounding community was interracial.”
Tolton “was a charming man with a beautiful singing voice,” information from the Website reads. “Rome had forever touched him.  He dreamed and planned for completing St. Monica. He wanted his congregation to point at their church with great pride.”
The invitations came in from bishops and cardinals who wanted Tolton to set up black churches in their dioceses, but the priest dedicated himself to the Chicago flock.
On a 105-degree July 9, 1897, Tolton collapsed while returning from a priests’ retreat and died at age 43, apparently from heat stroke. Some have theorized that he was killed by Chicago hoodlums or may have even contracted tuberculosis.
“The community was shocked, as they had lost their beloved pastor seemingly in the prime of his life,” the St. Elizabeth’s Website reads.
In accordance with his request, Tolton’s remains were returned to Quincy, but racial prejudice may have followed him to the grave.
The Website www.ancestry.com reported that Tolton’s coffin was placed so deeply in the ground at St. Peter Cemetery that another priest who died in the early 1900s was laid to rest over it. The inscription for Tolton also is on the back below a large cross that marks the other priest’s grave, according to the Website.

Process to sainthood
Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry is in charge of organizing the canonization effort.
Researchers are looking through archives to prepare a report about Tolton’s life. Once it’s done, Cardinal George will review it and send it on to the Congregation for Saints’ Causes at the Vatican.
“It’s a long process and we’re just at the beginning stage,” Colleen Dolan, director of communications and public relations for the Chicago Archdiocese, said in an interview. “It’ll be a paperwork process for several years before it goes to Rome.”
Tolton’s case will be different than some candidates for sainthood because there are no living witnesses to his work. Despite the lack of first-person input, Perry has said he believes there’s enough for the Vatican to do an initial examination.
The stages of canonization that precede sainthood are titled Servant of God, Venerable and Blessed. At least two miracles must be attributed to Tolton and accepted by church leaders. The final decision rests with the Pope.
Perry’s office is putting together a holy card with a prayer that God intercede on behalf of Tolton’s cause. It will be distributed throughout the archdiocese.
“We’re just starting to gather information,” Dolan said. “Until we get into it, we can’t really give it a timeline.”
The last sainthood announcement came in October 2009, when Pope Benedict XVI awarded the title to five people.
Perry said Tolton’s ideals are a good example for Catholics today and that his influence can still be felt.
“His quiet witness is a challenge to our prejudices and narrow-mindedness that keeps us insulated from the variety in the kingdom of God,” Perry told the Catholic New World.
“He’ll be a wonderful example,” Quinn added. “He didn’t give up, no matter what the opposition or the mountain he faced.”
Johnson said sainthood would prompt more people to become interested in Tolton’s ministry and life, and that he’d be happy to perform again as the priest.
“I’m looking forward to telling his story to anyone who wants to listen,” Johnson said.

Last word on first name
There’s a debate involving Tolton that’s just now been officially resolved.
It’s about his first name.
While he likely was baptized as “Augustine,” the priest probably will be known as “Augustus” Tolton if he reaches sainthood.
That’s because a relative who lives in Chicago told the Archdiocese that Augustus was Tolton’s given name.
“You could go either way on this,” Dolan said. “The Cardinal decided to go (with Augustus) because that was the name given by the mother.”
Quinn said that no matter how Tolton is identified, the pioneering priest will be a source of inspiration for people of all faiths.
“In worldly terms, he didn’t accomplish a lot, but who cares?” Quinn said. “His ministry was one of the Lord. He lived the forgiveness of Christ. His actions speak loudly.”