QUINCY — The church record, its pages yellow and age-withered, at St. Peter Catholic Church in Brush Creek, Mo., documents that on April 1, 1854, Augustus Tolton was born. It reports the baby’s baptism nearly two months later on May 29. In a final note — enclosed in parentheses, the baby’s status was disclosed: (Slave of Stephen Elliott).
Born a slave and spirited by his mother, Martha, to freedom in 1862, the man that child became was honored by pilgrims in a procession and prayer service in Quincy on Sunday, July 9. It was the 120th anniversary of his death. Today, Father Augustus Tolton is on a path to sainthood in the church. His gift of joy as he endured a life of physical and emotional suffering — even in his own church — attracted the participants.
Father Daren J. Zehnle of Springfield, who will become the pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church in Ashland on Aug. 1, led the procession and prayer service. He spoke of Tolton’s gift to today’s Catholics.
“Father Tolton stands as a model of long-suffering — of willing, patient endurance of hardship — a fruit of his deep humility and the strength of his faith,” said Father Zehnle. “We might rightly say that long-suffering is the way to embrace the cross as it comes to us; it is the offering of our sufferings with those of Christ Jesus for the sake of his body, the church.”
Father Zehnle led approximately 30 participants in quiet procession from Quincy’s St. Peter Catholic Church, which has descended from the church Father Tolton attended. There, he was confirmed, graduated from school, and discerned a calling to the priesthood. He began preparation for the seminary and studied at St. Francis Solanus College, today’s Quincy University. He then saw seminaries throughout the United States decline to enroll him because of his race.
Father Peter McGirr, Father Tolton’s pastor at St. Peter, and Father Michael Richardt, a Franciscan priest at the college, arranged for his enrollment in the College for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome which trained church missionaries. After graduation and at age 36, Father Tolton in 1886 was ordained a priest in ceremonies at St. John Lateran Basilica, the ecumenical mother church of Roman Catholic churches. He celebrated his first Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica.
Father Tolton believed he would be assigned to a missionary church in Africa, but was assigned to return to Quincy. On July 17, 1886, he arrived in the the city where newspapers reported thousands lined the streets to greet him. For five years, Father Tolton was pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church, a mission church of Quincy’s St. Boniface Catholic Church. A priest there sought his removal because of the large following, which included a growing number of whites, Father Tolton had attracted to St. Joseph. He asked for a transfer to serve African Americans in Chicago. There he established St. Monica Catholic Church.
His reputation for preaching and his speaking skills made him a popular speaker far beyond Chicago. His was an exhausting schedule. After returning to Chicago from a speaking trip, Father Tolton suffered a stroke and died on July 9, 1897. He was 43. His wish had been to be returned to Quincy for burial in St. Peter Catholic Cemetery.
It was at that place on July 9, 2017, where Father Zehnle summarized the spiritual meaning of Father Tolton’s life:
“The adventure of Father Gus’ life was marked by the cross,” Father Zehnle said. “He embraced it knowing that ‘the Lord will bless those who fear him, the little no less than the great.’ It is his confidence in the Lord’s loving care for us that marks Father Tolton as a Christian hero and for this reason we give God thanks for him. May Father Gus teach us to set ourselves aside for the sake of the Gospel, to glory not in ourselves, but in God alone. May he help us to ‘achieve the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ’ and be found in Christ with Father Tolton to be men and women of the finest merit. Amen.”
On Feb. 24, 2011, Cardinal Francis George of the Chicago Archdiocese signed the proclamation for the Cause for the Beatification and Canonization of Father Augustus Tolton. On Feb.13, 2012, the Sacred Congregation for Causes of Saints at the Vatican granted the title of “Servant of God” to Father Tolton and authorized the archdiocese to inquire into his life and virtues. Father Tolton’s body was exhumed on Dec. 10, 2016, a step in the process of canonization, which continues.
Reg Ankrom is a member of St. Francis Solanus Parish in Quincy.