From Our Pastors
Sanctity is often forged in the fire of opposition. At least that is the case for Father Augustine Tolton.
Father Tolton was born into slavery on a plantation in Brush Creek, Missouri in 1854. He was christened Augustine after the great Roman North African theologian of the same name. The plantation owner’s wife was his godmother. As a child during the Civil War, under fire from Confederate soldiers, his mother carried him and two other siblings across the Mississippi River to freedom.
His family settled in Quincy Illinois. He attended an all white Catholic school where he developed a vocation to the priesthood despite considerable prejudice and mistreatment as the only person of color in the school. No Seminary in the United States at the time would accept a black man. So he enrolled in the Pontifical Urban University in Rome. He was ordained the first African-American Catholic priest in Rome in 1886, fluent in Latin, Greek and Italian.
He expected to spend his life as a missionary in Africa because of the opposition in the US Church to a black priest. But Cardinal Simeoni, then head of the Vatican Department for the Propagation of the Faith, insisted he go back to the US. “America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world,” the cardinal said, “We shall see if it deserves that honor.”
Father Tolton’s first mass in the US was at St Boniface, in his home town of Quincy. He faced considerable opposition, not least from his brother priests, and from some protestant clergymen who thought he was stealing their flock by attracting them to St Monica’s, the “national African-American parish” in Chicago. “Father Gus”, as he was affectionately called, grew the parish from obscurity to national attention by his preaching, music program and fundraising talents. He died after a brief illness at the age of 43 in 1897 during the heatwave that was ravishing the country at the time.
In June of last year Pope Francis put Father Tolton on the path to Sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church “declaring his heroic virtues.”
This announcement gives Father Gus the title of Venerable and is the first of three steps necessary if he is to be declared a Saint. At the announcement, Bishop Joseph Perry of the Archdiocese of Chicago, which is leading the cause, called Father Tolton “a bright light in a difficult period of this nation’s history. His life and ministry still speak to the problems of our day where communities, neighborhoods and churches continue to evidence separations among race and class and the disturbances that erupt periodically from these social contradictions.”
Venerable Father Augustine Tolton, pray for us, pray for our country, pray for our Church.
Fr. Mark Lane, C.O. and Fr. Michael Callaghan, C.O.