By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published April 20, 2017
SMYRNA—Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory blessed an icon of Father Augustus Tolton, a priest who served in the archbishop’s hometown of Chicago, April 5 at the Chancery of the Archdiocese.
The icon, by artist Joseph Malham, will be displayed in the archdiocesan Office of Intercultural and Ethnic Diversity.
Father Tolton, granted the title of “Servant of God” by the Sacred Congregation for Causes of Saints at the Vatican in 2012, is recognized as the first African-American priest to serve in the U.S.
At the noon Mass in the St. Dominic Chapel, Archbishop Gregory talked about the life of the priest during his homily.
The archbishop said that many people still don’t know about Father Tolton, who was born a slave in 1854.
“But, his life, it’s a source of encouragement for people in the United States, not just African-Americans, but Catholics throughout our nation,” said Archbishop Gregory.
Following a vocation to the priesthood was not an easy path at that time, noted the archbishop.
“So he ended up going to Rome because there were no seminaries in the United States that would educate an African American for the priesthood at that time and for a long time thereafter,” he said.
Father Tolton completed his studies in Rome and was ordained for the Propaganda Fidei Congregation in 1886, expecting to become a missionary in Africa.
While he was not the first African-American to study there, he was first to be sent back to serve in the United States.
Typically, African-American priests were sent to Africa for missionary work, said the archbishop.
“At that point, Augustus must have felt very much like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego because he was being thrown into the fiery furnace,” he said. “He was put back into just a challenging crucible.”
Father Tolton was appointed pastor of St. Joseph Church in Quincy, Illinois, in 1886 and began his priestly ministry in Chicago in 1889.
The young priest grappled with issues of race and worked to serve all Catholics.
“He found it very difficult to be of full service, but he continued being a priest for people,” said Archbishop Gregory.
Father Tolton 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 parishioners. Working himself to exhaustion, the priest died at age 43 of heat stroke in 1897. Still weary after returning from a priests’ retreat, he collapsed while making visits to parishioners on a July day.
In 2010, the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago announced his intention to pursue the cause of canonization for Father Tolton.
Archbishop Gregory said he was honored to play a small part in the canonization investigation process by providing testimony about Father Tolton.
As an auxiliary bishop in Chicago, he often visited St. Elizabeth Church, formerly Father Tolton’s parish of St. Monica. The archbishop became acquainted with an elderly woman who had known Father Tolton as a child and attended his funeral.
Archbishop Gregory shared information learned from the St. Elizabeth parishioner as testimony.
“I feel close to Augustus Tolton,” said Archbishop Gregory.
He said he feels proud of the work of the Tolton Ambassadors Atlanta. The local group is raising awareness about the life of the priest and his adversities and actively supporting the efforts of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Bishop Joseph N. Perry, auxiliary bishop of Chicago and postulator for the cause for canonization, commissioned the icon to depict the priest’s inner fire for Christ, the Eucharist and the people he served.
Father Tolton was denied admittance to American seminaries but was accepted in Rome. In the icon, this is depicted by the red tassel on his biretta, an honor reserved for priests ordained in Rome. He is vested in a white chasuble, signifying love of the Mass, Easter joy and immersion in the Paschal Mystery.
Father Tolton blesses the viewer with his right hand. In the icon, the priest’s left hand rests over his heart, symbolizing burning love for the people of God whom he served. His fingers are slightly separated, representing the prejudice and separation he and other African Americans experienced.
Following the blessing, the Tolton Ambassadors Atlanta held a luncheon for guests to learn more about Father Tolton.
Ashley Morris, associate director of the Office of Intercultural and Ethnic Diversity, presented a program to 35 guests.
“I think more people are becoming energized when they learn about him,” said Morris.
Tolton Ambassadors will have a Mass this spring with the date to be announced.
Morris shared another local connection to Father Tolton.
Msgr. Ed Branch, retired campus minister at Lyke House, the Catholic Center at Atlanta University Center, inherited a Bible from his late grandmother.
“And in the Bible was this picture of Father Tolton,” explained Morris. “He had it framed and put it in his office.”
Very few photos of Father Tolton existed so the Archdiocese of Chicago asked to have the photo of Father Tolton in cassock to restore it.
Morris said Father Tolton is a “potential saint for everyone” because of his perseverance.
“To me, there’s so much you can take from his story,” said Morris. “He constantly gave of himself.”
To see the blessing of the Father Augustus Tolton icon, visit https://vimeo.com/212309598. For information on Tolton Ambassador events, email firstname.lastname@example.org.