Father Augustus Tolton
By PAUL BOIS, March 18, 2019
The Catholic Church stands on the cusp of making history by canonizing the first black American saint, who is also the first black American priest: former runaway slave Father Augustus Tolton.
“A nine-member theological commission at the Vatican voted unanimously Feb. 5 that Tolton’s sainthood cause, which began in 2010, be moved forward and presented to the ‘Ordinary Meeting of Cardinals and Archbishops,’ the Archdiocese of Chicago announced last month,” the National Catholic Register reports. “There the members will take a final vote before presenting a ‘Decree of Heroic Virtues’ to Pope Francis for approval.”
Born in Missouri in 1854, Tolton fled north into Illinois with his family to escape slavery during the Civil War. After studying the priesthood in Rome, he was ordained in 1889 and “served for three years at a parish in Quincy, eventually accepting an invitation to come to Chicago, where he led St. Monica parish until his death in 1897.” The National Black Catholic Congress provided more details on his remarkable life:
Augustus was born to two slaves, Peter Paul Tolton and his wife Martha Jane, on April 1, 1854. With the outbreak of the War between the States, Peter Paul hoped to gain freedom for his family and escaped to the North where he served in the Union Army, and was one of the 180,000 blacks who were killed in the war. His widow decided that she would see her husband’s quest for freedom realized in his children. After managing a crossing of the Mississippi River she made her way to Illinois and settled in the small town of Quincy. When her children attempted to attend Catholic school, parents of the other school children were not happy, so to avoid a messy situation, the School Sisters of Notre Dame decided to tutor the Tolton children privately.
As Augustus grew older he began displaying an interest in the priesthood. His parish priests, Fathers McGuirr and Richardt, encouraged the young man in this aspiration and tried without success, to enroll him in several diocesan seminaries. If the seminaries would not have him, they would begin Augustus’ education in theology themselves. Finally, in 1878, the Franciscan College in Quincy accepted him, and two years later he was enrolled at the college of the Propaganda Fidei in Rome. After completing his courses there, Augustus Tolton was ordained on April 24, 1886. His first assignment was Saint Joseph’s church in his home town of Quincy, where he served for two years and gained enormous respect from many of the German and Irish parishioners. He was later given a parish on the south side of the city, Saint Augustine’s church, which would later become Saint Monica’s. This would be Father Tolton’s parish for life, and it also became the center from which he ministered to all the Black Catholics of Chicago. He addressed the First Catholic Colored Congress in Washington DC in 1889.
Should Pope Francis approve the “Decree of Heroic Virtues” for Father Tolton, he would receive the title “Venerable,” meaning he “lived the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance at a heroic level,” according to the Chicago archdiocese.
While Father Tolton would indeed be the first black American saint, he is not the only black American Catholic deemed to have lived a life of heroic Christian virtue. The National Black Catholic Congress lists as many as five black American men and women who have been given the title Venerable or Servant of God.
In the Catholic Church, the title of sainthood is conferred onto those who are confirmed to be witnessing the beatific vision in heaven. According to Catholic doctrine, those in heaven can pray to God on behalf of the souls on Earth; miraculous events attributed to the saint’s intercession following a lengthy investigation is the metric by which the church determines a soul is in heaven. After two confirmed miracles, the person is declared a saint. The Church does not teach that only the canonized are saints. In fact, the holy feast day of All Saints Day acknowledges the (perhaps tens of millions) of saints whose names remain unknown.