Pursuing Father Tolton sainthood, bishop feels link to first black diocesan priest
By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published June 27, 2014
COLLEGE PARK—In conjunction with the 2014 Eucharistic Congress, the Atlanta Archdiocesan Tolton Cause for Canonization Committee welcomed special guest Bishop Joseph N. Perry of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Bishop Perry is the postulator for the cause of canonization of Father Augustus Tolton, the nation’s first black diocesan priest. The postulator presents the case for sainthood to the Vatican.
“The process is so thorough,” said Bishop Perry, a Chicago auxiliary bishop.
Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, officially opened the cause for canonization in 2010.
Father Tolton was born to slave parents in Brush Creek, Missouri, in 1854. Throughout his life and journey to priesthood, he had to overcome racial barriers to his studies and ministry as a priest. He served first in the Diocese of Quincy, Illinois, where he encountered extreme prejudice, and then worked in Chicago.
The Atlanta committee, led by Msgr. Edward Branch, was formed to raise awareness of the priest’s life and service to others.
At the local committee’s invitation, Bishop Perry visited with Atlanta area Catholics at the vocations table at the Eucharistic Congress on June 21. He also celebrated Mass June 22 at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Decatur.
As postulator, Bishop Perry said he has become so familiar with the trials and joys of Father Tolton. “I get a chance to talk to Tolton every day,” he said.
There are areas around the country where the interest in Father Tolton’s life and cause for canonization runs high, including Atlanta, as far west as Utah and also internationally.
In the spring of 2012, the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints named Father Tolton a “Servant of God.”
“We’re at the end of the research phase,” said Bishop Perry. He added that archivists have been studying and preparing some 5,000 documents to be sent to the Vatican.
“We’ll probably be shipping that to Rome at the end of the summer,” said the bishop.
Augustus Tolton was the son of Martha and Peter Tolton. Martha fled Missouri with her three children to Quincy, Illinois, in 1862 as her husband was fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Augustus began working at the age of 9 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, Italy, in 1880 to attend seminary there. No seminary in America 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.
He was pastor to both blacks and whites, and Bishop Perry said that people were “visually not ready to accept” Father Tolton in that role.
“He’s the first link in a long chain of seminarians of African-American descent,” said the bishop. “He’s the inspiration for us to hang in there.”
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 summer day.
Bishop Perry said there was not an “offensive bone,” in Father Tolton’s body. According to many accounts, he bore all hardships with dignity and grace.