By Cardinal Justin Rigali

The Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, recently introduced the cause for canonization of Father Augustine (sometimes known as “Augustus”) Tolton, the first full-blooded African-American priest in the United States. In this Year of the Priest, we reflect on his life this week.

The universal call to holiness
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council placed great emphasis on the “universal call to holiness.” This refers to the fact that “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (Lumen Gentium, 40). This teaching of the Council was certainly not a new teaching: it comes to us from Jesus Himself who called all to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The great spiritual writers over the centuries, particularly St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), also spoke of this universal call to holiness. However, in our age, the Second Vatican Council placed great emphasis on the call to holiness of each Christian, within the vocation and circumstances of life to which God has called that Christian.

From the earliest days of Christ’s Church, Christians have placed models of holiness before themselves in order to be strengthened and inspired by those who have preceded them, in circumstances similar to theirs, and led lives of great holiness. This spontaneous act on the part of the Christian community is the earliest known concept of “canonization.”

We often read that the Church “has made” someone a saint. The Church doesn’t “make saints,” as such. She possesses the “mark” or characteristic of holiness, which she received from Jesus, her Founder and, according to God’s plan, she is the source of grace and holiness through the Sacraments. In that sense, she gives to inspanidual Christians what they need in order to live saintly lives, but the cooperation and will of the inspanidual is always necessary.

In the cases of public canonization, the inspanidual man or woman, through holiness pursued in his or her vocation in life, has led a holy life and the Church is making that fact public with the aid of the Holy Spirit, when she declares an inspanidual to be a saint in Heaven. An early stage of this process takes place in the local Church, where the life, reputation and virtues of the person who will be proposed to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints is researched. The cause of Father Augustine Tolton, who we look at this week, is at this stage.

Born into slavery
Augustine Tolton was born in Ralls County, Missouri, on April 1, 1854. His parents, Peter Paul Tolton and Martha Jane Tolton, were both slaves of the Elliot family, who had all their slaves baptized as Catholics. Augustine’s father volunteered for the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War and died of dysentery shortly thereafter. His widowed mother took Augustine and her other children to Quincy, Illinois, where they worked in a cigar factory.

Through the initiative of the local pastor of the church where Mrs. Tolton attended Mass, young Augustine was enrolled in the parish school. However, after a short time the racial bigotry of some families caused him to withdraw from the school. The pastor continued his interest in Augustine and the Sisters of Notre Dame, who taught in the school, continued to instruct him privately. A few years later the pastor of another Catholic parish nearby, St. Peter’s, encouraged Mrs. Tolton to enroll Augustine in his parish school. He taught the young man to be an Altar Boy and gave him private lessons in Latin and religion.

As he matured, young Augustine began to show the signs of a priestly vocation. His parish priests encouraged him and attempted to have him accepted into various diocesan seminaries, to no avail. These good priests proceeded to tutor Augustine themselves with the hope of his eventually being accepted at some seminary.

Through the perseverance of his parish priests, Augustine was eventually accepted at the Seminary of the Propagation of the Faith in Rome, which generally trained priests for the missions.

Young Augustine presumed that, upon ordination, he would be sent to the African missions. At that time, the United States also came under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, as it was still considered mission territory. Father Tolton was ordained a priest in Rome on April 24, 1886 and celebrated his First Mass the next day, which was Easter Sunday that year, in St. Peter’s Basilica.

First African-American priest in the United States
Much to the newly ordained priest’s surprise, the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation told him that he was not being sent to Africa, but back to the United States. The Cardinal said: “America needs Negro priests. America has been called the most enlightened nation, we will see now whether it deserves the honor. If the United States has never seen a black priest, it must see one now.”

Father Tolton returned to Quincy, Illinois, where he was much-loved by the people and showed great priestly zeal. He was especially known for his excellent sermons and other pastors invited him to preach in their churches. However, a combination of bigotry on the part of some Catholics and jealousy on the part of some Protestants eventually caused trouble for Father Tolton.

In order to give him a more peaceful situation in which to conduct his priestly apostolate, the Archbishop of Chicago assigned him to a parish which would become the center for all the Black Catholics of Chicago. It was called St. Augustine’s as a mission and eventually named St. Monica’s when it became a parish.

We in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia have a special bond with Father Tolton because it was our own St. Katharine Drexel who provided the money for Father Tolton’s Chicago parish and Father Tolton corresponded with Mother Katharine regularly. She was one of the few people to whom he told his difficulties as the first fully African-American priest in the United States.

We say “fully” because he was preceded by the three Healy brothers who became priests. One of them became the President of Georgetown University, another became the Bishop of Portland, Maine and the third a Professor at the Seminary in Troy, New York. However, although their mother was a Black slave, and they were technically legally born slaves, their father was Irish.

Father Tolton worked with great zeal for his people and eventually became worn out. He died of heat stroke while returning from Retreat on July 9, 1897. He was only 43 years old.

“Father Tolton worked valiantly”
Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry of the Archdiocese of Chicago is organizing the Cause for Father Tolton, which will begin by ascertaining the degree of devotion there is among the faithful to Father Tolton. Bishop Perry summed up Father Tolton’ s faith, courage and zeal, under very difficult circumstances in this way: “Father Tolton worked valiantly in this city (Chicago) and in Quincy (Illinois) and through it all remained a faithful and dutiful priest and Catholic. He didn’t leave. He stuck with it. His quiet witness is a challenge to our prejudices and narrow mindedness that keeps us insulated from the variety in the kingdom of God.”

In announcing the introduction of Father Tolton’s Cause, Cardinal Francis George said: “We need his prayers and his help, especially to become a more united Church. Secondly, his example of priestly dedication, his learning and preaching, are great examples for our seminarians and priests and should inspire the laity.”

Father Tolton’s connection to our own Mother Katharine Drexel creates a special bond between him and Philadelphia. His priestly zeal, his courage in carrying the Cross with the Eternal High Priest in the difficult circumstances in which he was placed, and his fidelity, are a marvelous example to all of us, but especially to our young people. In Father Tolton, they can look to a true model of faith and even of adventure, in the life of this courageous African-American.

We might also point out that while we look with great sorrow at the bigotry which Father Tolton experienced, even within the Church, we can also look at the following facts: not long after the abolition of slavery in the United States, young Augustine Tolton was able to receive a Catholic education; almost 100 years before the end of official racial segregation in many parts of our country, Augustine was sent to the Rome to study for the priesthood at the center of the Church ‘s life; over 60 years before the Armed Forces were integrated in our country, Father Tolton celebrated his First Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and returned to his country as a priest of God.

If you wish to read more about Father Tolton, you may want to read “From Slave to Priest: A Biography of Reverend Augustine Tolton, the first black priest of the United States,” by Sister Caroline Hemmesath (Ignatius Press). Much of the biographical information you have just read is taken from this book. Also, bring your intentions to Father Tolton and be sure to report any favors you receive through his intercession to the Office for his Cause in Chicago.

22 April 2010