A new portrait of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton brightens up a Washington, D.C., church hall, along with the minds of the young people who see it there.
St. Anthony of Padua School art teacher Francis Washington painted the luminescent image of the 19th-century Missouri native, who went from being a slave to the Roman Catholic Church’s first recognizably Black priest in the United States.
“What stands out most for me is that he was faithful to his Priesthood,” said Dominican Sister Mary Olivia Shirley, who teaches fourth grade at the school. “He wanted nothing other than to serve the Church as an alter christus.”
That is to say, he shared in Jesus’s High Priesthood through the reception of Holy Orders, the offering of the Mass for the people, and the placing of their physical and spiritual wellbeing above his own.
“Augustus it is”
St. Anthony Church and School are located within sight of the U.S. Capitol and six blocks from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and The Catholic University of America.
Most of the children in the school are African American, as are about 80 percent of the people who live in the surrounding Brookland neighborhood.
Their archbishop, Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory, is the Church’s first African American cardinal.
The school takes its Catholic identity seriously.
“Every school year, we pick a saint and some of his or her words to be our theme for our new year,” said Principal Michael Thomasian.
Mr. Washington then creates a portrait of that year’s ethereal honoree, to be placed in the church hall.
The hall is familiar to many people from all over the Jefferson City diocese who for nine years received lodging there the night before the annual March for Life.
“It’s a large, beautiful room with a high ceiling and woodwork that’s in great shape,” said Mr. Thomasian. “But it’s boring.”
To remedy that, the beige walls between the windows are gradually becoming the school’s “hall of saints.”
“Last year was Mother Teresa,” the principal stated. “Another year was St. Augustine, then St. Oscar Romero. We’ve had St. Josephine Bakhita. You should see her painting. It’s amazing!”
Faculty members nominate saints for consideration each year and then vote on whom to honor.
Sr. Mary Olivia nominated Fr. Tolton to be last year’s “saint of the year,” even though he hasn’t been declared a saint.
“We can’t do that,” Mr. Thomasian politely stated. “We have to pick a saint.”
She nominated Fr. Tolton again this year, insisting that the children need to learn more about “this wonderful priest” and his steadfast commitment to doing God’s will despite earthly obstacles.
“Fr. Tolton’s life gives heroic witness to the Gospel,” she stated. “I am so happy that, by unanimous vote, the St. Anthony faculty voted for him to be the school’s patron saint for the year.”
“So Augustus it is!” Mr. Thomasian declared.
One for the books
Mr. Washington, himself a 1971 St. Anthony School graduate, paints each honoree.
Sr. Mary Olivia was amazed when she saw this year’s creation.
“It’s magnificent, as always!” she said. “He is a gifted artist and always studies the saints whom he paints for the school each year. His paintings beautifully reflect his prayerful meeting with the Communion of Saints.”
“His Venerable Augustus Tolton masterpiece is incredible,” Mr. Thomasian added. “We look forward to adding it to our Hall of Saints.”
Each teacher at St. Anthony also incorporates a message from or about the honored “saint” into a greeting posted outside his or her classroom door.
Sr. Mary Olivia is a member of the Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia Congregation of Nashville, Tennessee — of which Fulton native Sister Magdalena Dudenhoeffer is also a member.
Sr. Mary Olivia first learned about Fr. Tolton on a retreat given by Archbishop Peter J. Sartain, now retired, of Seattle a few years ago at the congregation’s motherhouse in Nashville.
Immediately drawn to Fr. Tolton’s faithful witness, she checked out a copy of his biography by Dominican Sister Caroline Hemesath, From Slave to Priest: The Inspirational Story of Father Augustine Tolton (1854-1897).
Pilgrims from the Jefferson City diocese presented a copy of that same book to the St. Anthony School library while visiting the school in 2017.
Cardinal Francis George OMI, now deceased, of Chicago opened a sainthood cause cause for Fr. Tolton in 2011.
Pope Francis in 2019 acknowledged Fr. Tolton’s heroic virtues and bestowed on him the title “Venerable” — meaning that he lived at a heroic level a life of faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.
An authenticated miracle attributed to God through Fr. Tolton’s intercession will be needed in order for him to be declared Blessed, and yet another miracle for him to be declared a Saint.
“My students have really enjoyed learning about the canonization process,” said Sr. Mary Olivia. “They have also been lifted up by his example of fortitude in the face of difficulty and strife.”
In September, they drew their own four-panel illustrations of what they remember about Fr. Tolton’s life.
Several depicted his priestly ordination in Rome, his eventual rejection by some of the people in Quincy, Illinois, where he had grown up, and his death in Chicago of heat exhaustion.
“My great hope is that the students at St. Anthony will get to know Fr. Tolton better this year and be inspired to pray for his (sainthood) cause to move forward,” said Sr. Mary Olivia. “He is a witness of faithful fortitude for our times.”
Confident that Fr. Tolton can and will pray with and for people who ask him to do so, she suggested seeking his intercession for “peace, unity and charity.”
She said people can help God answer that prayer by following Fr. Tolton’s advice: “We should welcome all people into the Church, not send them away.”
“These are very powerful words that are rooted in the message of Christ, King of the Universe, Who calls all children to the Kingdom of God,” she said.