Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Photo Courtesy Of Ashley Morris
Tolton Ambassadors from the Atlanta area encircle Bishop Joseph Perry, auxiliary bishop of Chicago, at an October Mass in which 13 new ambassadors were formally invested. Bishop Perry, the U.S. postulator for the sainthood cause of Father Augustus Tolton, led efforts to submit documents from church and civil archives to the Vatican in 2014. The ambassadors support the cause in partnership with the Tolton Guild of Chicago.

Atlanta Ambassadors will support sainthood for Father Tolton

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published November 17, 2016

ATLANTA—Over a century before the term “multicultural” entered the American lexicon, Father Augustus Tolton courageously preached the Gospel to racially diverse Americans drawn to his parish during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

He was the first recognized black Catholic diocesan priest in the United States. Father Tolton’s cause is now on the path to possible sainthood, his case opened in 2010 by the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.

In early October in Atlanta, the U.S. postulator for the cause, Bishop Joseph Perry, auxiliary bishop of Chicago, and special assistant to the postulator, Norbertine Father A. Gerard Jordan, a canon of Daylesford Abbey, celebrated a Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart to formally invest 13 Tolton Ambassadors.

Ashley Morris is excited to join with other volunteer ambassadors in Atlanta and around the nation to help uplift Father Tolton to sainthood. He was one of the original members of a local canonization committee started by Msgr. Edward Branch. The ambassadors spread knowledge of Father Tolton and support his cause.

“He was a priest of the people of God, first and foremost. And his particular cross to carry was doing so in a time when it was an anomaly to have an African-American wear a Roman collar,” said Morris, associate director of the archdiocesan Office of Intercultural and Ethnic Diversity.

“With the type of insults and the type of persecution he put up with, it’s a story that resonates with everyone, regardless of their cultural situation. We all know what it feels like to work or to help others and to constantly be demeaned by groups of people or harshly criticized for doing what we feel God intends us to do,” Morris said.

Father Tolton exemplified patient perseverance, he added.

“He’s a model of how we—no matter what our vocation is in life—can strive to do God’s work and can find the strength and encouragement and power to do it if we allow Christ in and rely on our ministry to others to sustain us no matter what is thrown at us,” said Morris.

3,000 pages of testimony

Bishop Perry led efforts to submit about 3,000 pages of documents from church and civil archives on Father Tolton’s life to the Vatican in 2014. Also submitted was the documentation for two reported miracles attributed to Father Tolton’s intercession and over 50 sworn testimonials of people who say they received a divine favor through his aid. He is among about 35 American cases that are in the canonization process and would be the first native-born priest to be declared a saint.

The next milestone in the process is to exhume his body in Quincy, Illinois. If the pope determines that he lived with heroic virtues, he will be declared venerable. The confirmation by both scientific and theological commissions that one or two miracles have taken place is needed before the next steps of beatification or canonization can occur.

“He had an abiding love for the church and a pastoral love for people that was spelled out in his priesthood in service to both blacks and whites in a time when that kind of thing was frowned upon,” said Bishop Perry, who prays for his intercession.

The bishop said, “People kind of drifted towards him because of his kindly and priestly nature, and there were always people trying to interrupt that or saying it could not be or should not be. But he managed in his short life to keep himself priestly and devoted to what he believed was the pastoral ministry. In a sense you could call him a pioneer in race relations.”

All races came to his church

Father Tolton was born to slave parents in Missouri in 1854 and his mother fled to Illinois with him and his siblings as his father fought in the Civil War. He entered St. Boniface School in 1865 but quickly left because the parish was being threatened. He was rejected by American seminaries because of his race but went in 1880 to an international seminary in Rome, Italy. He was ordained a priest at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome in 1886 and returned to America despite fears of a backlash by the Ku Klux Klan.

He was first given a new church for African-Americans in Quincy, but Irish and German Catholics also started showing up to check out the first recognizably black man with a Roman collar and cassock. Other black priests before him had passed themselves off as white, including Jesuit Father Patrick Healy, president of Georgetown University.

Father Augustine Tolton, also known as Augustus, is pictured in a photo from an undated portrait card. Born into slavery in Missouri, he was ordained a priest April 24, 1886. He served as pastor at St. Joseph Church in Quincy, Ill., and later established St. Monica’s Church in Chicago. His cause for canonization is underway. CNS Photo/Courtesy of Archdiocese of Chicago Archives and Records Center

Bishop Perry called Father Tolton a “suffering servant” for “the manner in which he handled protracted disappointment and bigotry” without seeking retaliation. When one priest complained to the bishop that the upstart was poaching his flock, he was advised to stick to his brethren or find new employment.

“The whites in the city began gravitating to his Masses, giving confessions to him, listening to his sermons and that kind of raised the ire of fellow clergy in that area,” Bishop Perry said. “He ended up writing to Rome and describing this kind of dilemma he was in, but he never extended back to this German priest, Father Michael Weiss, any angry words at him or retaliatory gestures or anything of that nature. But in his letters you could see that he suffered greatly because he had no clout.”

Inspiration for black vocations

The special assistant to the diocesan postulator, Father Jordan, is inspired by Father Tolton in his own ministry as the first black in his abbey community just outside of Philadelphia.

“They wanted to see Father Tolton for themselves, and then when they heard his preaching, the Germans and the Irish stayed,” Father Jordan said. “In one of his writings Father Tolton noted that about a thousand whites came to hear him preach, but there were also at least 500 blacks. And for the first time he could say they were truly worshipping and gathering as a community of faith. So that is one of the things that inspired me, the unity, the spirit of reconciliation and the multicultural draw he had.”

Father Tolton later started the parish of St. Monica for blacks in Chicago. The neighborhood was in the heart of the city’s ghetto and he often visited the impoverished homes of his parishioners. Working himself to exhaustion, he died in 1897 at the age of 43 of a heat stroke and other complications.

The first African-American actually ordained in the United States was Father Charles Uncles in 1891. but it wasn’t until the 1900s that there was “an influx of black clergy,” noted Father Jordan.

“Father Tolton’s cause is a good way of inspiring black vocations for the church and we’re in great need of black vocations,” he said. “It has only been about 125 years and every black clergy owes their priesthood to Father Augustus Tolton.”

Father Jordan himself grew up with a sense of spiritual connection to Father Tolton as both were sickly, held jobs as youths and had priestly vocations as children.

“I wanted to be a priest and my mom joked with me often by saying, ‘If you want to eat, you have to go to work after school,’” he said. “When I found out Tolton had worked two jobs, it didn’t feel so bad having to work a simple job after school.”

Seven cities have Tolton Ambassadors

Atlanta is one of seven cities nationwide with ambassadors working in partnership with the Tolton Guild of Chicago.

“The ambassadors have the charge of promoting the cause in their local area because it’s a cause that’s universal, not just a Chicago cause, because he was a universal priest. He lived in Rome. He traveled throughout the country. He went to most if not all the black Catholic congresses,” said Father Jordan.

The first black Catholic congress was held in 1889.

In the archdiocese, Morris is available to speak at parishes and conferences to increase awareness, noting how St. Teresa of Kolkata labored for decades without recognition.

“Prayer and being able to tell the story are very important and God willing everything else will flow from that,” Morris said.

Kimberly Daniels, president of the Tolton Ambassadors Atlanta board of governors, believes his legacy is applicable to national divisions starting with black protests over allegations of police brutality. She draws inspiration for her own interfaith ministry with local Muslim and Jewish communities.

“He was a man who did ordinary things extraordinarily well in a time of controversy,” Daniels reflected. “When I look at what he did and the way he did it, he was good at dealing with hard issues and keeping the peace. We have a lot of things hurting people in a lot of different ways. I do a lot of interfaith work. It motivates me to still address hard issues but keep the peace and build these bridges of understanding as we work together.”

For information visit To contact local ambassadors, email or call Ashley Morris at 404-920-7585.