Runaway slave-turned-priest moves closer to beatification

Catholic News Agency

May 13, 2018

CHICAGO, Illinois – The first African American priest in the U.S. could become the country’s first African American saint as his cause took another step forward this week.

A document summarizing the life, virtue, and alleged miracles of Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton, known as the positio, was unanimously approved as historically correct by a committee of six Vatican officials this week, clearing the way for the priest’s cause for canonization to continue moving forward.

Bishop Joseph N. Perry, auxiliary bishop of Chicago and diocesan postulator for the Tolton cause, called the approval a “very positive sign going forward” and noted its significance for the African American Catholic Community.

“Father Tolton lived during a particularly tumultuous time in American history especially for race relations,” Perry said in a statement.

“He was a pioneer of his era for inclusiveness drawing both blacks and whites to his parish in Quincy. However, due to his race, he suffered discrimination and condemnation. The beatification and canonization of Father Tolton will signal a significant milestone in the history of black Catholicism in the United States.”

Born in Missouri on April 1, 1854, John Augustine Tolton fled slavery with his mother and two siblings in 1862 by crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois.

“John, boy, you’re free. Never forget the goodness of the Lord,” Tolton’s mother told him after the crossing, according to the website of St. Elizabeth’s Church in Chicago.

The young Tolton entered St. Peter’s Catholic School with the help of the school’s pastor, Father Peter McGirr. McGirr would later baptize him and instruct him for his first Holy Communion. Tolton was serving as an altar boy by the next summer.

The priest asked Tolton if he would like to become a priest, saying it would take 12 years of hard study. The excited boy then said they should go to church and pray for his success.

After graduating from high school and Quincy College, he began his ecclesiastical studies in Rome, because no American seminary would accept him on account of his race.

On April 24, 1886 he was ordained in Rome by Cardinal Lucido Maria Parocchi, who was then the vicar general of Rome. Newspapers throughout the U.S. carried the story.

Tolton was ordained for the southern Illinois Diocese of Quincy. Upon his return in July 1886, he was greeted at the train station “like a conquering hero,” the website of St. Elizabeth’s Parish says.

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