By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published May 16, 2014
ATLANTA—Father Augustus Tolton, while not a household name for most Catholics, is being investigated for possible sainthood.
Born to slave parents in Brush Creek, Mo., in 1854, Father Tolton was to become the first black diocesan priest in the nation.
Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, officially opened the cause for canonization of Father Tolton in 2010. The priest had served in the Diocese of Quincy, Ill., where he encountered much prejudice, and then worked in Chicago.
The Atlanta Archdiocesan Tolton Cause for Canonization Committee, formed to raise consciousness of the priest’s life and service to others, has organized several events during and after the archdiocesan Eucharistic Congress that will be held June 20-21 at the Georgia International Convention Center.
Msgr. Edward Branch, chaplain at Lyke House Catholic Center at Atlanta University Center, is facilitator of the committee. Msgr. Branch called Father Tolton a “marvelous priest” and also pointed out that if his cause is approved, he would become the “first native-born American priest to be canonized.”
In the spring of 2012, the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints named Father Tolton a “servant of God.” The research phase in the cause for canonization concluded in March.
Augustus Tolton was the son of Martha and Peter Tolton. Martha fled Missouri with her three children to Quincy, Ill., in 1862 as her husband was fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Augustus began working at the age of 9 in a tobacco factory and entered St. Boniface School in 1865. He left the school one month later because the parish and its staff were being threatened and harassed over his presence.
Augustus likely received first Communion at the age of 16 and departed for Rome in 1880 to attend seminary there. No American seminary would accept him because of his race.
Ordained a priest at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome in 1886, Father Tolton returned to Quincy to serve as pastor of St. Joseph Church.
Father Tolton later came to Chicago to start the Parish of St. Monica for black Catholics. The neighborhood was poverty-stricken and he often visited the rat-infested homes of his parishioners. Working himself to exhaustion, the priest died at the age of 43 of heat stroke. He collapsed after returning to Chicago from a priests’ retreat on a 105°F day.
Ashley Morris, assistant director of the archdiocesan Office for Black Catholic Ministry, is a canonization committee member.
For Morris, Father Tolton is a role model and standard for all.
“The Catholic Church often recognizes the contributions of many men and women who lived holy lives in search of a true, intimate connection with God through Jesus Christ in service to men, women and children all around the world,” said Morris. “Father Tolton stands among them as a stellar example of a faith-filled man who, despite the hurdles and roadblocks of overt and legalized racism and discrimination that existed during his life, relied on God as his foundation and center to fill him with the strength and grace to love and serve the Lord and all of God’s children. Father Tolton literally gave his life to his priestly vocation, and is much more than simply an inspiration to me.”
Morris said several kick-off events are set to take place at the time of the Eucharistic Congress.
Bishop Joseph N. Perry, auxiliary bishop of Chicago and diocesan postulator for the canonization cause, is expected to attend the congress and provide information about Father Tolton at the vocations table, Morris said.
Bishop Perry is also scheduled to celebrate Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Decatur on Sunday, June 22, at 11:30 a.m. as well as attend a gathering at Lyke House on the same day at 4 p.m, he said.
Both Cardinal George and Bishop Perry offered comments on Father Tolton’s ministry in a video prepared for the opening of the canonization cause.
“In the midst of hardship, he was joyful,” said Cardinal George about the priest.
“He didn’t dish back anything that was dished out to him,” added Bishop Perry.
The Office for Black Catholic Ministry is exploring the creation of Tolton Clubs at parishes to encourage others to raise awareness in the community.
“We also encourage everyone to visit the Father Augustus Tolton Cause for Canonization website often, to share it with others, and to continue to pray for Father Tolton’s cause and his intercession,” said Morris.