Sunday, 23 May 2010 09:04

Sainthood cause opened for Quincy’s Father Tolton

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Father Augustine Tolton, following his ordination on Holy Saturday, 1886.CHICAGO — A young priest who spent half of his life living, learning and serving in Quincy before finally being buried there, may one day be a saint.

The archdiocese of Chicago has recently introduced Father Augustine Tolton’s cause for sainthood. Sometimes known as Augustus — and commonly called “Gus” — Father Tolton was the first American priest of African descent to serve in the United States.

In an article that ran during March in the Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George said, “It is appropriate that, during this Year for Priests, we recall our forebears who were holy men in the presbyterate of the Archdiocese of Chicago.” Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago is organizing Father Tolton’s cause, which is termed an “ancient” because there are no living witnesses to the priest’s life. After Bishop Perry goes through all the archival material, he will write a report about Father Tolton’s life that will go to Cardinal George. Finally, it will be presented to the Holy See and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Stages of canonization

Servant of God: A promoter group (for example the diocese, parish or organization) asks the bishop for an opening of an investigation. A nihil obstat is granted from the Vatican for the candidate to be called “servant of God.” The diocesan tribunal hears witnesses and testimony on heroic Christian virtues. So, the term “servant of God” describes someone at this stage in the process.

Venerable: The postulator presents acts and documents (positio) to the Congregation of Causes of Saints in Rome. After favorable judgment and papal approval, the candidate is declared “Venerable.”

Blessed: After a miracle attributed to the intercession of the “Venerable” has been investigated and accepted, the pope decides on beatification. The candid is now titled “Blessed.”

Saint: After a second miracle is attributed to the intercession of the “Blessed,” the pope may then declare the Blessed a “Saint.”

Note: Canonization information provided by

Born the middle child of two Catholic slaves, Martha Chisley Tolton and Peter Paul Tolton, on April 1, 1854 young Augustine spent his first years on a farm in Ralls County, Mo. After the Civil War broke out, Peter ran away to St. Louis, hoping to join the Union. In 1862, Martha, unsure of her spouse’s fate, escaped to Quincy with her two sons, Charles and Gus, and a daughter, Anne. Two years later, Charles, who was older than Gus but always in poor health, passed away. Eventually Martha found out that her husband, too, had died shortly after his arrival in St. Louis.

Young Gus attended Mass at St. Boniface Parish and was a student at St. Boniface School, albeit sporadically due to his work in a cigar factory. He was finally expelled when prejudiced parishioners threatened their pastor, Father Herman J. Schaefermeyer. Eventually Gus attended St. Peter’s, which was a predominately Irish school. There he was tutored by a kind nun, School Sister of Notre Dame Sister Herlinde.

Father Peter McGirr, the pastor of St. Peter’s, knew his parishioner was interested in pursuing the priesthood. He was encouraged that Bishop Peter Baltes had agreed to pay expenses at any seminary that would accept the young man. Meanwhile, Augustine became the first black man admitted to St. Francis Solanus College, which is now Quincy University.

As it turned out, no seminary in the United States would take him, but Augustine was eventually accepted to the Urban College of the Propaganda Fide in Rome. He was ordained to the priesthood on Holy Saturday in 1886.

Shortly after his ordination Father Tolton, who probably expected to be sent to Africa, returned to Quincy. He celebrated his first high Mass at St. Boniface Church, with over 1,500 people in attendance. In Quincy, Father Tolton was named pastor of the recently organized mission of St. Boniface Church, St. Joseph, where he began to bring in both black and white parishioners. He became known as an understanding confessor and a great preacher. Unfortunately, jealousy and prejudice came into play and Father Tolton transferred to the Archdiocese of Chicago at the end of 1889.

Nineteen of the black converts whom Father Tolton had welcomed into the church moved to Chicago with him, as did his sister and his mother. In Chicago, Father Tolton was asked to develop a parish for blacks and so he struggled for many years to build St. Monica’s, a storefront church. In the early 1890s, Father Tolton was in communication with the now-St. Katharine Drexel, and her community provided his parish with financial support.

Father Tolton’s health declined and he suffered a heat stroke and died in Chicago on July 9, 1897 at age 43. More than 100 priests attended his funeral

in Chicago. A few days later he was buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Quincy.

Although Father Tolton could never have foreseen the day when so many men would follow in his footsteps, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, about 250 black priests are serving in the United States, with about 75 seminarians of African-American descent studying to be priests.

Quincy native Father Roy Bauer, who was pastor of St. Peter Parish there for 19 years and is now living in retirement in Quincy, is a long-time admirer of Father Tolton and the author of the biography They Called Him Father Gus. “My interest in Father Tolton goes back to childhood when I would ride my bike in the cemeteries in Quincy and I took note of his grave. I heard older people talk about him and mention going to confession at his church,” he said. “By my time, the church building that had been his parish in Quincy was turned into a produce warehouse.

“Galatians 5:22 lists what we call in the catechism, the ‘fruits of the Holy Spirit’ meaning that if we accept the gifts of the Holy Spirit, this is what our life will be like. In the Baltimore Catechism and in the traditional translation, one of the fruits is ‘long-suffering.’ The modern translation doesn’t ‘grab’ me — it says ‘patience,’” Father Bauer said. “I prefer the image that comes into my mind by the use of the expression ‘long-suffering.’

“That is the fruit of the Holy Spirit that I see in the life of Father Tolton — long suffering — putting up with the nonsense imposed on him in order to follow the calling that God gave him: being rejected by the seminaries in the USA, putting up with the slurs and slanderous comments. Our society does not understand the value of long-suffering,” he said. “If we are offended or denied justice, we sue in the court, complain about it on talk TV shows, or do violence. That may bring about some reluctant change, but it rarely brings about a change of heart in anyone.”

In the Catholic New World, Bishop Perry also acknowledged Father Tolton’s struggles. “Father Tolton worked valiantly in this city and in Quincy and through it all remained a faithful and dutiful priest and Catholic. He didn’t leave. He stuck with it,” he said. “His quiet witness is a challenge to our prejudices and narrow-mindedness that keeps us insulated from the variety in the kingdom of God.”

As for Father Tolton’s sainthood cause, Father Bauer said, “Now we need miracles wrought through his intercession in order for his ‘cause’ to proceed.”