Rome – Father Augustine Tolton of Quincy, the nation’s first black priest and once a slave, was proclaimed “Venerable” by Pope Francis, making Father Tolton one step closer to being declared a saint by the Catholic Church.
“Today’s news is not only exciting for Catholics across the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, but also for the entire Christian world,” Bishop Thomas John Paprocki said. “Father Tolton’s story, from slave to priest, is an incredible journey that shows how God has a plan for all of us. Father Tolton overcame the odds of slavery, prejudice, and racism, to become a humble priest and someone we should model our lives after. He carried his crosses in life quietly and heroically. What a source of great pride to have the nation’s first black priest and someone who is on his way to sainthood, live and minister in our diocese. His life truly shows that all of us ― no matter how ordinary we think we are ― can do extraordinary things and live a heroic Christian life.”
Now that Father Tolton has been declared Venerable, the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois is exploring having a shrine to honor Venerable Father Tolton. One possible location could be the now-closed St. Boniface Church in Quincy. An announcement on that could come later this year.
In the meantime, the cause for the beatification and canonization of sainthood continues, something the Diocese of Springfield and Archdiocese of Chicago have been working on together since 2003.
“We are all called to holiness in our own situations,” said Bishop Joseph Perry of the Archdiocese of Chicago and vice postulator for the Cause of Augustine Tolton. “We each have a mission taken with the cross in life to make a difference, to win this world for God and to
get to heaven. Father Tolton leaves us a shining example of what Christian action is all about, what patient suffering is all about in face of life’s incongruities. He was a bright light in a difficult period of this nation’s history. His life and ministry still speak to the problems of our day where communities, neighborhoods and churches continue to evidence separations among race and class and the disturbances that erupt periodically from these social contradictions. Father Tolton is a model for priests and laity who live and work in these situations while they strive to work for harmony and peace among all regardless their color, their origin, their language.”
If a miracle can be attributed to Father Tolton’s prayerful intercession, he would then be declared Blessed by the pope. Another miracle would lead him to sainthood. Officials in Rome are currently reviewing at least one potential miracle.
“By naming Father Tolton ‘Venerable,’ the Catholic Church holds him up as an example worthy of our imitation,” said Father Daren Zehnle, a Quincy native and pastor at St. Augustine Church in Ashland. “I’ve always been struck by the example of Father Gus’ patience and long-suffering, of the way he joyfully united his suffering with the Cross of Christ. That, I think is an example we very much need today.”
Father Tolton was born into slavery in Missouri April 1, 1854. His mother, through her courage and the help of some Union soldiers in Missouri, made a daring escape across the Mississippi River with Augustine and his two siblings in 1862 in the dead of night, with Confederate
soldiers shooting at them. After landing in Illinois, the family located to Quincy where Augustine attended St. Peter Catholic School, an all-white parish school in Quincy, led by Father Peter McGirr. Young Tolton, already Catholic, was later asked that he should think about ecoming a priest. Little did he know at the time that God was working through him to that vocation.
Because no American seminary would accept a black man, Tolton began his priestly studies in Rome, thinking he would minister in Africa, but once he was ordained at the age of 31, he was sent back to Quincy, arriving to the joy of thousands of well-wishers.
Father Zehnle recounted an important moment in Father Tolton’s life toward the end of his time in Rome. “One of Father Tolton’s biographers recounts a conversation Father Tolton had with Cardinal Simeoni just before he was sent back to Quincy as a priest. The cardinal remarked that America had been called the most enlightened nation on earth, and he would see if it deserved that honor. He said, ‘If America has not yet seen a black priest, it must see one now.’”
Father Tolton ministered in Quincy for a little more than three years, with his first assignment at St. Joseph Church. After years of enduring racism from some members of the community, including a priest, he later accepted an assignment in Chicago, continuing his service to the poor and marginalized. Father Tolton died in 1897 at the age of 43 from heat stroke. Known as “Good Father Gus,” Father Tolton is buried in Quincy at St. Peter Cemetery.
“It’s my hope we all see the heroic legacy of Father Tolton and try to live a life like his: one of service to others, refusing to let the evils of the world ruin his mission of introducing Jesus to others, and meeting hatred with love,” Bishop Paprocki said. “We are all called to be a saint ― Father Tolton’s way of life gives us the perfect roadmap.”
Prior to the announcement by Pope Francis, Father Tolton was given the title “Servant of God” by the Holy See in 2011.