By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published November 14, 2019
ATLANTA—Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, the first African American diocesan priest, was advanced to the second phase of sainthood on June 12 by Pope Francis.
The Tolton Ambassadors in Atlanta share the story of Father Augustus in various ways and raise awareness of his cause. A day of reflection was held Oct. 12 to teach about his life, his cause for canonization and six other candidates of color from the United States for sainthood.
Next year, the group will focus on local awareness and branding.
“We’re trying to get more people aware of Father Tolton,” said Carmen Jenkins, president of Tolton Ambassadors and parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Atlanta.
Goals for 2020 include presentations in Catholic schools and hosting informational events at more parishes. A fundraiser will also held be later next year.
“We welcome anyone who is interested, especially younger people” who can bring innovative ideas on spreading the story of Father Tolton, said Jenkins.
Cardinal Francis George announced Father Tolton’s cause for canonization in 2010. He became a “servant of God” in 2012. In June of this year, Pope Francis advanced the cause, giving him the title, The Venerable Father Augustus Tolton.
The next stage is beatification, where a miracle must be attributed to prayers made for Father Tolton’s intercession. This usually includes a recovery from a diagnosis that cannot be medically explained. If a second miracle is confirmed, Father Tolton may be canonized a saint.
Augustus Tolton was born in Missouri on April 1, 1854 to Martha Jane Chisley and Peter Paul, a slave couple. He was the second born of three children, with an older brother named Charles and a younger sister named Anne. Before meeting Paul, Chisley was a slave owned by Catholics. She was baptized and instructed in the faith.
The family escaped to Quincy, Illinois in 1862. As the family found a new beginning in the city, prayer and hymns were part of family life. Tolton began studying at Catholic schools in the area and attending Mass. In 1870, he received the sacrament of confirmation and likely his first communion.
After deciding to be a priest, Tolton applied to many seminaries and religious orders, but none would accept him due to his race. Tolton was later accepted as a seminarian at Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide in Rome. He was ordained to the priesthood April 24, 1886. After ordination, he was sent back to the United States to serve in the Diocese of Alton, Illinois, which is now Springfield.
Father Tolton experienced racism throughout his life, including in the priesthood. Facing many obstacles, he was transferred to the Diocese of Chicago. There, he hoped to build up St. Monica Church for black Catholics to celebrate their faith. He taught religion classes and tried to help the laity who were living in poverty. Throughout his life, he went by many names, including Augustus, Augustine and “Father Gus.”
Working himself to exhaustion, Father Tolton died at age 43 on July 9, 1897.
While the Archdiocese of Chicago is leading the cause, Catholics across the world, especially in the United States, are encouraged to tell the story of Father Tolton and pray for his canonization.
Becoming a saint can take many years, said Jenkins, who hopes to see his canonization in her lifetime.
“We have to keep praying, we have to stay focused and we have to keep the cause out there,” said Jenkins.
For more information on Tolton Ambassadors Atlanta, email firstname.lastname@example.org.