With sin and scandal dominating the headlines these days, seems a good time to recall those who've done things right.
In recent days, movement's been reported on the cause of sainthood on these shores. And in a unique twist, this one has a special import for the nation's African-American Catholics -- a contingent estimated at some 3 million souls.
Chicago officials have begun a push for the beatification of the nation's first Black priest, Fr Augustus Tolton (1854-97), who was ordained for the diocese of Quincy (now Springfield) in 1886...
Father Tolton was born into slavery. His parents, Peter and Martha Tolton, were slaves living in Brush Creek, Mo. They were married in a Catholic ceremony and had three children: Charles, Augustine and Anne. Augustine was born into the Catholic faith. His baptismal records at St. Peter’s Church in Sidney, Mo., read “A colored child born April 1, 1854. Son of Peter Tolton and Martha Chisley, Property of Stephen Eliot,” according to “From Slave to Priest,” a biography of Father Tolton’s life by Sister Caroline Hemesath....
When Augustine was 11, his mother enrolled him in St. Boniface School during the winter months when work at the cigar factory dropped off. His mother pulled him from school after only one month when the parish priest and sisters received harassment and anonymous threats because of Augustine’s presence.
His mother enrolled him in public school. But three years later, the pastor of nearby St. Peter’s Church told Augustine and his mother that the boy could attend St. Peter’s School. Here he became an altar server.
It was during this time that Augustine began to feel he had a vocation to the priesthood. Father Peter McGirr, the pastor at St. Peter’s, approached Augustine about the idea and helped him along this journey, a journey that would be difficult and have many roadblocks.
They wrote to all the seminaries in the United States, according to “From Slave to Priest” and received negative responses. They also tried the Franciscans and Josephites to no avail.
Meanwhile, several of the local priests took to educating and training Augustine for the seminary on the side.
After several years, they appealed to the College of the Propagation of the Faith in Rome, a pontifical college that trained and ordained priests for missionary work around the world. They thought Augustine could become a missionary in Africa.
In February of 1880, Augustine left for Rome. After six years of study, he was ordained on April 24, 1886, at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome. The day before his ordination, which was Good Friday, there was a change in plans. Augustine would not be ministering in Africa. Instead, officials of the college felt he should be a missionary in his own country. They felt it was time America had its own black priest.
According to reports, this devastated Father Tolton because he knew the climate he was going back to and the amount of racism he would face in America. But he went, uniting his future suffering with Jesus. Father Tolton returned to Quincy and celebrated his first Mass at home on July 18, 1886, at St. Boniface Church. He was assigned pastor of St. Joseph Church, a black parish affiliated with St. Boniface.
Despite fervent efforts to minister to his congregation, racism and anti-Catholicism hindered his ministry. Soon it all intensified and Father Tolton appealed to his superiors to accept an invitation from Archbishop Patrick Feehan in Chicago to minister to black Catholics here. His appeal was finally granted. Father Tolton boarded a train for Chicago in December 1889.
At the time, St. Mary Church at Ninth and Wabash was the hub for black Catholics in Chicago. In 1882 they celebrated their first Mass as a congregation in the church’s basement. It became known as St. Augustine Church after the name of the St. Augustine Society, the black Catholic apostolate in the archdiocese.
Once the apostolate had its own priest, their numbers swelled and they needed a church of their own. Archbishop Feehan granted permission for Father Tolton to open a storefront church in the 2200 block of South Indiana in 1891, which would later be known as St. Monica’s Church.
In the early 1890s, Father Tolton and the now-St. Katharine Drexel corresponded and St. Katharine’s community provided financial support for Father Tolton’s Chicago parish.
Father Tolton worked tirelessly for his congregation in Chicago, to the point of exhaustion, and on July 9, 1897 he died of heat stroke while returning from a priests’ retreat. He was 43. His death shocked the black Catholic community of the city and left a hole at St. Monica’s. Father Tolton’s body was returned to Quincy for burial in St. Peter’s Cemetery, where it remains today.