My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
This past Dec. 10, was a very historic day in the life of our diocese: the exhumation of the mortal remains of Father Augustine Tolton took place at St. Peter Cemetery in Quincy that day. Born April 1, 1854, he was the first full-blooded African-American Catholic priest in the United States. A former slave who was baptized and reared Catholic, he studied formally in Rome. He was ordained in Rome on Easter Sunday of 1886 at the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. Assigned to the diocese of Alton (now the Diocese of Springfield), Father Tolton first ministered in Quincy, and later served in Chicago.
At the age of 43, on July 8, 1897, Father Tolton collapsed and died the following day as a result of a heat wave in Chicago. After a funeral which included 100 priests, Father Tolton was buried in Quincy in St. Peter’s Cemetery, which had been his expressed wish.
An exhumation is when the bones are carefully dug up from the grave of a deceased person in conjunction with the official cause for that person to be declared a saint by the pope through the canonical process known as beatification and canonization. The exhumation of Father Tolton’s remains was carried out by a collaborative effort involving staff from the Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, under my episcopal oversight as diocesan bishop together with Bishop Joseph Perry, Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago and the Diocesan Postulator for the Cause of Canonization of Father Tolton.
Our diocesan team included Msgr. David Hoefler, Vicar General, Father Christopher House, Chancellor, Father Daren Zehnle, Master of Ceremonies, Brother Patrick Shea, OFM, Vice-Chancellor, Mr. John Treanor, Vice-Chancellor for Archives and Records and historian for Father Tolton’s Cause for Canonization, Mr. Greg Fleck, Director of the Office for Properties, Buildings and Cemeteries, and Mr. Brad Fisher, Cemetery Associate. Several priests who currently serve or previously served in Quincy were also present at various times throughout the process, including Father Roy Bauer, who is very knowledgeable about the life of Father Tolton.
The exhumation team also included an archeologist, a forensic anthropologist and a forensic pathologist. These experts were able to verify that the bones were the skeletal remains of an African-American male who died at about the age of 43. Two crucifixes and the remnants of a clerical collar were also recovered. The bones were then reassembled in a new set of liturgical vestments in the style that would have been worn by a priest at Mass in the nineteenth century, placed in a new waterproof casket and vault, and then reinterred in the same grave at St. Peter Cemetery in Quincy.
It was spiritually very moving to be an eyewitness to this rare event, hoping and praying that someday Father Tolton will be officially canonized a saint by the pope. What a great blessing that would be for a priest of our diocese to be formally declared a saint! Before that happens, however, two miracles need to be verified: one in order for him to be beatified and another subsequent one for him to be canonized. Please pray that this will happen, through God’s grace! This is the official prayer for Father Tolton’s cause for canonization, as written by Bishop Joseph Perry and granted an imprimatur by the late Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago:
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.
To report any spiritual or physical favors granted through prayer in Father Tolton’s name, please write: Office of the Cardinal, Archdiocese of Chicago, 835 North Rush Street, Chicago, Illinois 60611.
May God give us this grace. Amen.