By Jay Nies
Another key milestone has been reached in discerning whether Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton should be beatified — a big step toward declaring him a saint.
Historical consultants advising Church officials on causes for sainthood recently signed off on the “positio” for Fr. Tolton, “thus paving the way for a positive reception by remaining steps of scrutiny at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints,” Bishop Joseph N. Perry, auxiliary bishop of Chicago and vice-postulator for Fr. Tolton’s beatification cause, recently wrote to Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City.
The “positio” is an official position paper on the life of a candidate for beatification.
“In this instance, it amounts to a doctoral dissertation on a person’s life insofar as research can obtain documentation on a life,” Bishop Perry stated.
Fr. Tolton, the Roman Catholic Church’s first black priest in the United States, was born and baptized in northeastern Missouri in what is now part of the Jefferson City diocese.
Known also for his piety, humility, tenacity and evangelical zeal, he has been a source of inspiration and devotion in the Church in the United States since his priestly ordination 132 years ago.
Church authorities are rightly thorough in their examinations leading up to beatification — that is the declaration that someone is “blessed,” or worthy of veneration and emulation by the faithful.
All the more scrupulous is the process leading up to what would be the next step: declaring that person to be among the saints interceding for God’s people in His presence in heaven.
Teacher, priest and shepherd
Born into slavery in Monroe County, Missouri, in 1854 and baptized into eternal life in the old St. Peter Church in Brush Creek, Fr. Tolton escaped to Quincy, Illinois, with his family during the Civil War.
He suffered many indignities because he was black. Aware for years that God was calling him to be a priest, he could find no seminary or religious order in the United States that would accept him.
He finally applied and was received into the Society for the Propagation of the Faith’s Urban College in Rome.
He was ordained to the Holy Priesthood in St. Peter’s Basilica in 1886.
He thought all along that he would be missioned to Africa but instead was sent back to Quincy, where he had grown up.
He ministered to that city’s African-American Catholics before being reassigned to Chicago as pastor of the St. Monica mission for black Catholics. Most of his parishioners were very poor.
Fr. Tolton died of heat stroke in 1897, at age 43, after pouring himself out in selfless ministry.
Cardinal Francis George OMI of Chicago, now deceased, in 2010 announced his intention to open a sainthood case for Fr. Tolton.
Priests of the Chicago archdiocese approved the cause by acclimation, and Bishop Perry visited the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints to learn about the particulars of launching the process.
The Father Tolton Guild and Historical Commission of historian specialists and archivists, and a Commission of Theologians were established in September of 2010.
Dr. Andrea Ambrosi, the postulator chosen for the Rome side of the process, visited Chicago and met with Bishop Perry and other personnel later that year.
Bishop Perry, who is African-American, oversaw the gathering of information for the cause, in keeping with the thorough requirements of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
He also composed the official prayer for the cause, in which he asks God to “glorify Your servant … so that all may know the goodness of this priest whose memory looms large in the Church he loved.”
The Congregation for the Causes of Saints in February 2011 granted Fr. Tolton the title “Servant of God” and ordered the Chicago archdiocese to proceed with the diocesan inquiry into his life and virtues.
Research into Fr. Tolton’s life involved the gathering of documents and letters from various archives and libraries across the United States and in Rome, along with testimony taken in the ecclesiastical tribunal from about 20 experts in an array of disciplines.
Cardinal George closed the diocesan inquiry and sent its findings to the Vatican on Sept. 29, 2014.
A man of letters
Bishop Perry noted that although Fr. Tolton died 121 years ago, researchers have access to much valuable information about him — “basically through correspondence and records at the Vatican archives, diocesan archives here in the United States, libraries and other collections that have reported on ministry in the African American community here.”
There are also clips of newspaper articles chronicling the wonder and novelty of Fr. Tolton being a singular priest of African descent.
“We also have authoritative commentary on the condition of blacks in the United States from slavery times through the Civil War and Reconstruction that describes the condition of blacks in and outside the Church for that time,” Bishop Perry noted.
The postulators are also in possession of 17 letters written by Fr. Tolton — some in Italian when he addressed figures in Rome, others in English, written to bishops and priests and to Katharine Drexel, an American philanthropist and foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who was declared a saint in 2000.
Bishop Perry noted that Fr. Tolton was at least reasonably fluent in German and that according to experts, his Italian was good.
He took his classes in Italian for six years as a seminarian at the Urban College in Rome.
A servant to the end
Bishop Perry and others in the Chicago archdiocese who helped with the research and inquiry remained in contact with Dr. Ambrosi in Rome during the composition of the positio.
“For a historical case where records were dug up from sources largely unsystematic in their preservation, Fr. Tolton’s story comes together pretty well,” Bishop Perry stated. “We are delighted that the research is determined sufficient for the Vatican’s understanding of Fr. Tolton’s virtues and his times.”
Bishop Perry pointed out that Fr. Tolton’s story remains relevant during the current period of racial tension in U.S. society.
Fr. Tolton was excoriated not only because he was black but also because he ministered generously to a mixed racial situation that saw whites and blacks mingling together in his parish in Quincy, Illinois.
“Society and Church could not handle a mixed community already crying out at that time for civil and ecclesial recognition,” Bishop Perry observed. “Even the Church could not perceive the benefits of bringing people together when civil law and lawless custom dictated otherwise and punished people, white and black, who defied the status-quo.”
For that reason, Fr. Tolton “was told to ‘get out of town’ by his dean and his bishop,” Bishop Perry stated.
Nonetheless, he rose above all of that with perseverance, charity, stamina and priestly conviction.
In the process, said Bishop Perry, “he saw both faces of the Church during his life.”
One of those faces showed ambivalence about the race question and fearfulness of the loss of patronage in this country, which at that time was very anti-Catholic and not very sympathetic to the plight of blacks in the tumultuous years after the Civil War.
But he also saw the face of individual, forward-thinking priests, religious sisters and brothers who championed the advancement of blacks in the Church and society.
“Fr. Tolton benefited from a few priests and religious who sensed his goodness and purity of life and a genuine vocation to help pioneer a different approach for the Church of the 19th century and beyond,” said Bishop Perry.
He pointed out that the Franciscan Friars of the Sacred Heart Province, working with their superior general in Rome, were the prime movers in getting Fr. Tolton accepted into a seminary there.
Franciscans from that same province remain active in ministry in Chicago.
Fr. Tolton was eventually given permission to transfer from Quincy to Chicago, where he would minister primarily to poor people, black and white, living in tenements on the South Side.
“In all this, he suffered persecution, poverty and self-doubt,” Bishop Perry stated. “It all had repercussions with his health.”
His witness in the Windy City turned out to be short-lived but effective.
“His name has been whispered in gatherings of black Catholics ever since,” said Bishop Perry. “He was the first of our racial definition to be a priest of the Catholic Church and served two dioceses with distinction.”
Prayers continue for God to glorify Himself miraculously in response to Fr. Tolton’s prayerful intercession.
Such miraculous interventions, which must be scrupulously verified, would show that God wants Fr. Tolton to be declared blessed and eventually declared a saint.
“Keep praying for the cause!” Bishop Perry advised.
More information can be found online at: www.tolton canonization.org.