Hundreds of people turned out to celebrate Pope Francis declaring Father Augustus Tolton “venerable” during a Mass with Cardinal Blase J. Cupich Oct. 14 at St. Philip Neri Church in Chicago.
The promulgation of the decree by the Pope declaring Tolton “venerable,” which was announced June 11, means his life was formally recognized as demonstrating the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance at a heroic level.
Fr. Tolton is two steps away from possibly being declared a saint. Once it is confirmed that one miracle has been granted by God through the intercession of Fr. Tolton, he will be declared “blessed.”
For canonization — being named a saint — a second miracle is generally required unless the Pope waives that requirement.
Two possible miracles through Fr. Tolton’s intercession have been sent to the Vatican for review, according to Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, postulator of the cause.
That Fr. Tolton has moved closer to being declared a saint drew many to the Mass to celebrate.
“I’m really happy that they are looking at his life and the things that he has done,” said Velma Barker-Hill of Holy Angels parish in Chicago. “Just to think that a miracle may have been performed in his name is something that really touched my heart.”
Ms. Barker-Hill said that as an African American herself, she has enjoyed learning about Fr. Tolton, who was the first native-born, African American man ordained a Roman Catholic priest for the United States.
“It is just remarkable and I’m always glad to hear about another saint, especially because he is African American,” she said. “I think it brings unity among us and this shows that we are all made in God’s image and likeness, that we’re very proud to be Catholics.”
Lisa Lease Adams of St. Katharine Drexel parish in Chicago learned about Fr. Tolton through people at her parish and, after studying his life, came to admire what he did for black Catholics.
“Father Augustus Tolton was a very special man,” she said, adding that she looks forward to his canonization.
“That would mean the world to me because things that we have worked for, they finally mean something. He died for things that need to be done,” she said.
Franciscan Brother Raphael Ozoude is on the path to Priesthood and draws inspiration from Fr. Tolton in his vocation.
“I’m very inspired by his example of being the first black American to be ordained to the Priesthood,” he said. “I think in many ways he has inspired people like me. It’s very nice seeing someone who looks like you and who has been there ... and who is preaching the Gospel,” Brother Raphael said.
He believes Fr. Tolton’s canonization would be a positive thing for the Catholic Church.
“I think it will show the world at large that there are a lot of black Catholics in the country,” he said. “To see that the Church actually comprises us and values us as one of the beloved people would inspire many to come and see the Church really is ‘catholic,’ every culture is valued here.”
Fr. Tolton was born into slavery in 1854 on a plantation near Brush Creek, Missouri, in the northeastern part of what is now the Jefferson City diocese.
Before the end of the Civil War, his mother, Martha, fled slavery with her three children and settled in Quincy, Illinois.
There, Tolton was encouraged to discern his vocation to the Priesthood by diocesan and Franciscan priests.
However, he was denied access to seminaries in the United States after repeated requests, so he pursued his education in Rome at what is now the Pontifical Urbanian University.
Tolton was ordained for the Propaganda Fidei Congregation in 1886, expecting to become a missionary in Africa.
Instead, he was sent to be a missionary in his own country and returned to Quincy.
In 1889, after facing discrimination and racist taunts from at least one local priest, he accepted Chicago Archbishop Patrick Feehan’s request to minister to black Catholics in the Chicago archdiocese.
Fr. Tolton spearheaded the building of St. Monica Church for black Catholics and worked tirelessly for his congregation, even to the point of exhaustion.
On July 9, 1897, he died during a heatwave at the age of 43.
Cardinal Francis George, now deceased, of Chicago opened Fr. Tolton’s cause for canonization in 2010.
For information about Fr. Tolton’s cause for canonization, visit tolton.archchicago.org.
Ms. Duriga is editor of New Catholic World, newspaper of the Chicago Archdiocese, and chicagocatholic.com.