A Saint For Our Time: A Lenten Reflection The Servant Of God Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897)

A Saint for Our Time: a Lenten Reflection
The Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897)

The Most Reverend Bishop Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Belleville

On Thursday, February 24, 2011, I returned to my home Archdiocese of Chicago to participate in a unique event. I returned to the magnificent Chapel of St. James with its splendid copies of the windows of La Sainte-Chapelle, built in Paris by Saint Louis IX, King of France, to house a relic of the Crown of Thorns. I prayed many times each day in this chapel as a high school student at Quigley Preparatory Seminary. The building, no longer a seminary, now houses the Archbishop Quigley Center, the Chancery of the Archdiocese of Chicago. The chapel remains unchanged, the jewel of the Center. I returned to this spiritual center of my youth to participate in Mid-Afternoon Prayer during which His Eminence, Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago presided over the Proclamation and First Session of the Canonical Trial examining the life, virtues and reputation of holiness of Father August Tolton. This was the first public step in the Cause of his Beatification and Canonization.

It was unique because he is the first priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago to be proposed for canonization. It is also unique because Fr. Tolton was the first priest of African decent born in the United States and ordained to serve the Church here. His canonization would be a milestone in the Catholic history of this country. Fr. Tolton’s canonization would have a special significance for the Diocese of Belleville because he was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Alton, Illinois, a now suppressed Diocese which once embraced the territory of the Diocese of Belleville.

The Proclamation and First Session consisted in part of a series of oaths and the formal signing of official documents by Cardinal George; Bishop Joseph N. Perry, Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago and Diocesan Postulator of the Cause; and members of historical and theological commissions. It was an impressive event which has rarely taken place in the United States. In attendance were descendants of Fr. Tolton’s family members. With the formal opening of his Cause, Fr. Tolton receives the title, “Servant of God.” Once it has been established that his life was “Heroic in Virtue,” the Holy See will give him the title, “Venerable.” Further study and investigation must follow before the Church bestows the titles “Beatus,” and “Sanctus” (Blessed and Saint). Ordinarily, these titles are not bestowed until there are signs of divine favor, a miracle indicating the power of Fr. Tolton’s prayers of intercession. I invite you to save the prayer at the end of this article and pray it often. If you should receive what you believe to be a miraculous response to your prayer, you should document the event and report it to the office of Bishop Perry in the Archdiocese of Chicago. The summary of Fr. Tolton’s life that follows is derived from the writings of The Most Reverend Joseph N. Perry, Diocesan Postulator for the Cause.

During Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, March 9, 2011, we are all called to go into the desert with the Lord Jesus Christ, to purify our hearts with prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and acts of repentance, and accompany our catechumens on their journey up to Jerusalem for the Easter Vigil Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. By these sacraments new members are initiated into the Christian mysteries and into the Catholic Church. By this initiation we are all called to follow the path of “heroic virtue,” the path to the holiness of life, the path to sainthood. As you ponder Fr. Tolton’s life, which may be unknown to you and quite unlike your own, recall that his life of faith was fed by the same Word of God, the same Body and Blood of Christ as yours. His life, lived just a few hundred miles from where you live, was conformed to the image of Christ, the Suffering Servant. May his life, like that of Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin (Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower) teach us that the road to sanctity is marked by doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way out of love for God.

The Early Years

“He was a man beset on all sides by racism and its tragic consequences. Yet, he dared to believe that no door can be kept closed against the movement of the Lord and the power of the Spirit.” — Fr. Eugene Kole, O.F.M., President of Quincy University, during the Centennial Observance of Fr. Tolton’s death, July 12-13, 1997.

Fr. Augustus Tolton (1854-1897) lived his brief life of forty-three years during a particularly troubled period in American history. This was the period of the “middle passage” when cargo ships from Europe made their way to west Africa and enslaved human beings, transporting them across the Atlantic Ocean in chains and stacked on top of one another by the thousands and “selling” them to plantation owners. The ships returned to Europe filled with tobacco and cotton cultivated by slave labor. Augustus was born a slave of slave parents who were all baptized Catholics by arrangement of the Catholic families who “owned” them and sadly did not see the contradiction between their faith in Christ the Liberator and their presuming to “buy and sell” other human beings. His father, Peter Tolton, left to fight for freedom with Union Troops at the start of the Civil War. Much later it was discovered that he died in a hospital in St. Louis. His wife, Martha Jane Tolton, having accomplished a harrowing escape from those who “owned” her and her children, found refuge in Quincy, Illinois, a station of the Underground Railroad that assisted escaping slaves reach freedom. There in Quincy, she raised her children, seeking out Catholic schools for them. Augustus’s boyhood and youth had as backdrop the period of Reconstruction and the nation’s ambivalence about the plight of freed People of Color.

While a new government struggled to gain control, the subjugation of free African-American men and women continued in the former Confederate states. They suffered at the hands of racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Racial inequality and segregation was taken for granted even by the Catholic Church.
As a young boy, Augustus worked long hours in a tobacco factory. Several local priests and sisters took Tolton under their wing to tutor him in the catechism, languages, including Latin, and the necessary academic subjects that won him entry into Quincy College, which was conducted by the Franciscan Fathers.
He was mature for his age and he showed signs of a vocation to the priesthood. But, it proved difficult finding a seminary in the United States that would take a black student. After years of searching and petitioning only to receive letters of denial or no response at all, the Franciscan Fathers were able to prevail upon their Superior General in Rome to make contact with the Cardinal in charge of the Propaganda Fide. Augustus Tolton was accepted and entered the college of the Propaganda and studied philosophy and theology for six years with seminarians from mission countries. He was ordained to the priesthood on April 24, 1886 at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Cathedral Church of the Pope as Bishop of Rome.

The Priesthood

Fearing that Fr. Tolton’s priesthood would be filled with suffering given the prevailing racial prejudice that prevailed in the United States, his superiors thought he would serve as a missionary priest in Africa. However, his mentor, Giovanni Cardinal Simeoni, challenged the Church in the United States to accept Fr. Tolton as its first African-American priest. “America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world. We shall see if it deserves that honor.” He returned to his home Diocese of Alton, Illinois, which once embraced the Dioceses of Springfield and Belleville. After his First Mass in Quincy, he was assigned to St. Joseph Church, the “Negro Parish.”
Many local priests counseled their parishioners to stay away from St. Joseph Church. When White parishioners went to Fr. Tolton’s parish to receive sacraments and counsel from him, a neighboring Catholic Pastor and Dean of the area ordered him, in no uncertain terms, to restrict himself to serving the People of Color. He also complained several times to the local Bishop, demanding that White parishioners be ordered to stay away from Fr. Tolton’s parish. Many White People stopped attending the church while others remained steadfast in their support of Fr. Tolton and the Negro apostolate.

In midst of this ferment, Fr. Tolton suffered under increasing isolation and feelings of apprehension, perpetrated by local clergy with whom he needed association, to say nothing of the town’s lay Catholics. He became well known around the country as the first visible Black Catholic priest, renowned for his preaching and public speaking abilities and his sensitive ministry to everyone. He was often asked to speak at conventions and other gatherings of Catholics of both races.

At that time, a fledgling African-American Catholic community needed organization in Chicago. Archbishop Patrick Feehan, aware of Fr. Tolton’s painful experiences in the Alton Diocese, received him in Chicago in 1889. His Bishop did not hesitate to give permission for the transfer, accusing the priest of creating an unacceptable situation by inviting fraternization between the races.

Fr. Tolton opened a storefront church in Chicago and later built a church for the growing African-American Catholic community on the South Side at 36th & Dearborn, managing to complete the lower level where the community worshipped for some time while he raised funds for the church’s completion. Katherine Drexel (now Saint Katherine), foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (for African-American women excluded from other orders), contributed to the building of the church.

Fr. Tolton became renowned for attending to the needs of his people with tireless zeal and a holy joy. He was a familiar figure in the littered streets and dingy alleys, in the Negro shacks and tenement houses. Father Tolton had the pastoral sensitivity needed to bring hope and comfort to the sick and the dying, to bestow spiritual and material assistance, and to mitigate the suffering and sorrow of an oppressed people.

His biographers write that Fr. Tolton worked himself to exhaustion while dealing with the internalized stress that came with navigating the rough, cold waters of racial rejection. Like most poor People of Color, Fr. Tolton lacked adequate health care. The first week of July 1897, an unusual heat wave hit Chicago, during which a number of people died. Father Tolton suffered a heat-stroke under the daily scourge of 105 degree heat and collapsed on the street. Doctors at Mercy Hospital worked frantically for four hours to save his life. But like St. Paul, Augustus had run the race, kept the faith, and fought the fight. He died 8.30 in the evening of July 9th with his mother, his sister, a priest, and several nuns at his bedside. Funeral Masses were celebrated for him in Chicago and in Quincy, where he wanted to be buried. Large crowds of priests and laity participated, singing his favorite hymn, Te Deum (“Holy God We Praise Thy Name”).

His Legacy of Faith and Service
In death as in life the community has held to the memory of Fr. Tolton’s life of holiness and selfless service of others. His memory looms large for his genteelness, his indiscriminate pastoral care given to all people: Black and White, Catholics, those of other faiths, and those of no faith at all. Stories have been handed down about his exhausting ministry in the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago. He walked the streets and visited the tenement houses surrounding his parish devoting himself to the desperate poor.

Despite his own sufferings, Father Tolton remained steadfast in his priesthood, faithful and serene. In spite of vile things said to him by racists in the community, he never dished back the prejudice that was thrown in his face. He returned no criticism, no resentment, and no unkind words to those who rejected and belittled him because of the color of his skin. He bore on his shoulders and in his heart a unique burden as the first and only African-American priest in our nation. The Suffering-Servant Song of the prophet, Isaiah must have had a special meaning for him.
Believing with all of his heart that the Catholic Church was the true Church of Jesus Christ, Fr. Tolton was convinced that, in spite of rejection, the Gospel of Christ lived authentically could play a central role in the liberation and advancement of those whose ancestors had been brought to these shores in chains in direct violation of the Gospel imperative, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” His correspondence with Saint Katherine Drexel and others brings to light a humble and devout man of remarkable faith. He proved an example of a true priest of Jesus Christ in an extraordinary time, when most Americans could not imagine that a son of Africa could make a significant contribution to society or to the Church, not even one ordained and dedicated as sacerdos in aeternum. In a June 5, 1891 letter to Mother Katherine Drexel he wrote, “I shall work and pull at it as long as God gives me life, for I am beginning to see that I have powers and principalities to resist anywhere and everywhere I go.”

Father Theodore Warning, a priest of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, spoke of living with Father Tolton and his mother in 1896 while he attended a summer session at the University of Chicago. He stopped at St. Monica’s to seek a place to stay because it was close to the campus of the University. Father Warning reported that: “…they lived in a poorly furnished but very clean house. The meals were simple affairs. Father Tolton, his mother and I sat at a table having an oil cloth cover. A kerosene lamp stood in the middle. On the wall directly behind Father’s Tolton’s place hung a large black rosary. As soon as the evening meal was over, Father Tolton would rise and take the beads from the nail. He kissed the large crucifix reverently. We all knelt on the bare floor while the Negro priest, in a low voice, led the prayers with deliberate slowness and unmistakable fervor.”

Several educational and ministerial ventures carry Tolton’s name across the country. We have the Augustus Tolton Ministry Program at The Catholic Theological Union here in Chicago. Most recently, a high school has been named after him in the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, where is found the farm at which the Toltons labored and from which they escaped the evil, sinful scourge of human slavery.

It is not unusual for African American Catholic parishes across the country to have a portrait of Fr. Tolton displayed. Most recently a scholarship program has been set up for elementary and high school students attending schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

People visit Fr. Tolton’s grave in Quincy, Illinois frequently as individuals and as groups of pilgrims. Fr. Tolton remains an uplifting sign of hope and promise not only for African-American Catholics but also for all Catholics striving to live by the “Good News,” which brings salvation to all people. His love for the Catholic faith, his total commitment to the priesthood, his long suffering and personal cheerfulness in face of oppression is a true inspiration for religious brothers and sisters, seminarians, deacons, priests and the Christian Faithful in our time. Fr. Tolton’s dream of a society in which the human dignity of all is respected remains “a dream deferred.”

The life story of Fr. Tolton carries significance for the Church in the United States. We have no recognized saints who survived the periods of slavery, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era in the United States. If this Cause reaches positive outcomes, it would be a credit to the many people, black and white, who suffered and died or were murdered for the cause of racial justice as well as a tribute to the Church’s prophetic witness displayed in those historical periods.

Fr. Tolton life’s is a triumph of perseverance and faith. He is a model of enormous courage and dedication to the Church, priestly zeal and fidelity in face of the social hostilities endemic to that time. Society and the church threw “no’s” at him consistently. We trust that the Church will not say “no” this time when the Church can benefit from reflection upon his suffering path. He is a model of holiness for anyone who wants to serve God and find grace through the suffering experiences of life. He is a model for priests and the sufferings priests are asked to bear in order to serve faithfully.

As an American born and raised up for heroically living the Christian life, Fr. Tolton is of our culture and he battled to make American society authentically Christ-entered. Every one of us can participate and many others have participated in this battle with him. His story reminds us that the United States is a work in progress: White People participated in the Underground Railroad’s rescue of fellow human beings who escaped from bondage. The Underground Railroad authenticated the radical human dignity of those who had been unjustly enslaved and revealed the radical human dignity of those rescuing their sisters and brothers. Priests of the Church and men and women religious took Augustus Tolton by the hand and walked with him through the dark forest of the sin and heresy of racial prejudice. In doing so they revealed the face of Christ.


O God, we give you thanks for your servant and priest, Father Augustus Tolton, who labored among us in times of contradiction, times that were both beautiful and paradoxical. His ministry helped lay the foundation for a truly Catholic gathering in faith in our time. We stand in the shadow of his ministry. May his life continue to inspire us and imbue us with that confidence and hope that will forge a new evangelization for the Church we love.

Father in Heaven, Father Tolton’s suffering service sheds light upon our sorrows; we see them through the prism of your Son’s passion and death. If it be your Will, O God, glorify your servant, Father Tolton, by granting the favor I now request through his intercession (mention your request) so that all may know the goodness of this priest whose memory looms large in the Church he loved.

Complete what you have begun in us that we might work for the fulfillment of your kingdom. Not to us the glory, but glory to you O God, through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are our God, living and reigning forever and ever. Amen

Please visit www.toltoncanonization.org for more information on the Cause of Augustus Tolton.