Fr. Augustus Tolton moved a big step closer to sainthood on June 12, 2019, when the Vatican announced that he was among the eight candidates recognized for their heroic virtue.
In Chicago, where Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry is archdiocesan postulator for the cause, there is excitement and gratitude. In Chicago, Fr. Tolton is revered not only as a likely future saint but a local hero.
The Servant of God Augustus Tolton, diocesan priest, born in Brush Creek, United States of America, on April 1, 1854, and died in Chicago, United States of America, on July 9, 1897.
His cause for Sainthood was proposed by the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago on March 1, 2010, in the following words:
Many Catholics might not ever have heard of Fr. Augustus Tolton, but black Catholics most probably have. He was the first American diocesan priest of African descent, the son of slaves. After studying in Rome, because no American seminary would accept him, he was ordained for the Diocese of Quincy, in southern Illinois, and later came to Chicago to start a parish for black Catholics. He died young, at only 43 years of age; but most priests in the nineteenth century died before their fiftieth birthday. Visiting the sick on a daily basis was risky in an age before antibiotics. Many priests sickened sometime in their forties and died after a period of ill health.
Fr. Tolton’s cause for sainthood is being introduced in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and during this year for priests, it would be good to pray to him and to ask the Lord to send us many more priests like him.
Looking at the years Fr. Tolton lived — 1854-1897 — it is clear that his life wrapped around America’s Civil War and time of immense conflict and change. He studied for the priesthood with the expectation that he would become a missionary priest, probably in Africa. Instead, he was called to serve as a diocesan priest in Chicago, becoming a different sort of missionary to the growing population of black Catholic.
Although he lived during the emancipation of slaves and increasing freedom for black Americans, he had to study in Rome, because prejudice prevented his acceptance to an American seminary. He was ordained in St. John Lateran Basilica and celebrated his first Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. And he began his ministry in Chicago the same year Jane Addams established Hull House.
Fr. Tolton’s accomplishments were significant. But it also is important to remember that his work was accomplished during a time of continuing prejudice in a nation that has only recently freed its slaves.
“Although slavery ended legally after the American Civil War, severe racial prejudice remained dominant in American life for many decades; the Church was not immune to this evil,” said Cardinal George. “Participation of blacks in ordinary political, economic, social and even religious life was hampered and curtailed at every turn. Father Tolton lived courageously in the midst of this prejudice with the help of some Catholic priests, religious sisters, and laity. The introduction of his Cause now gives the Church as a whole the opportunity to affirm his courage and enable him, long after his death, to take his place in our history and our prayers.”
“Tolton’s story is one of carving out one’s humanity as a man and as a priest in an atmosphere of racial volatility,” said Bishop Perry. “His was a fundamental and pervasive struggle to be recognized, welcomed and accepted. He rises wonderfully as a Christ-figure, never uttering a harsh word about anyone or anything while being thrown one disappointment after another. He persevered among us when there was no logical reason to do so.”
The Archdiocese of Chicago has a website dedicated to the cause of Fr. Tolton where you can find a wealth of information. You can read a full biography of this remarkable man.