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An African American Saint For Our Time / Wall Street Journal 2 weeks 4 days ago #390254

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An African-American Saint for Our Time

Augustus Tolton was born into slavery, became a priest, and ministered to the poor.

By John J. Miller


When Augustus Tolton prepared to take his vows as a Catholic priest in 1886, he assumed that he would leave Rome for missionary work in Africa. Then a cardinal told him that he was bound for Illinois. Tolton was astonished: “Must I go back to America, where I was not wanted as a priest?”

Born into slavery on a Missouri farm in 1854, Tolton grew up to become America’s first black Catholic priest. He attended seminary abroad because none in the U.S. would take him. Leaving for Italy in 1880, he thought he never would return to his native country.

The archdiocese of Chicago took up the cause for his canonization a decade ago. Last year Pope Francis declared Tolton “venerable,” meaning he led a life of heroic virtue and is one step closer to sainthood. As racial turmoil divides the U.S., Tolton’s cause may gain momentum.

On June 4, Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing—a Michigan diocese that has no historical connection to Tolton—called for six days of prayer and fasting for racial reconciliation as well as “the canonization of ‘Good Father Gus’ as a model of saintliness and solidarity in the face of racial injustice and social division.” On July 9, the anniversary of Tolton’s death in 1897, Bishop Boyea will hold a special mass for Tolton’s canonization.

“That’s exactly what we need: more prayer warriors,” says Chicago’s Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, one of America’s few black bishops as well as Tolton’s postulator. Overseeing panels of historians and theologians, he has submitted more than 4,000 pages of documents on Tolton to the Vatican.

The first record of Tolton’s life is in the baptismal register of St. Peter’s Church, a few miles west of Hannibal, Mo., the boyhood home of Mark Twain. Hannibal also is the place where Tolton’s father was sold at a slave auction. Although a link between Twain and the senior Tolton is entirely speculative, they were contemporaries. It’s tempting to imagine a connection that shaped the moral imagination of the author who would invent American literature’s greatest interracial friendship in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

During the Civil War, Tolton’s father escaped from slavery and enlisted in the Union army. He died at a military hospital in Arkansas in 1864. Tolton’s mother also fled from bondage, hopping aboard the Underground Railroad with her three children, including the 7-year-old future Father Gus. They settled among the German-born Catholics of Quincy, Ill. The faithful family attended Mass but also encountered bigotry: When Tolton enrolled in a parish school, white parents protested and drove him out.

As Tolton grew into manhood, he worked in a cigar factory and continued to attend church. Father Peter McGirr noticed his fidelity and asked if he had considered the priesthood. “I am a Negro, and I can be what you are?” Tolton replied, according to his biographer, Sister Caroline Hemesath. “I don’t see why not,” McGirr answered.

Lots of others did. No seminary in the country accepted Tolton. This prompted McGirr and others to instruct Tolton until a college in Rome finally enrolled him. He was ordained in 1886.

Tolton returned to Quincy, where he became a figure of curiosity as people of all races and denominations attended his church. Many admired his strong singing voice. He also clashed with a local priest, who thought Tolton should minister only to black Catholics. Frustrated, Tolton requested a transfer to Chicago.

He moved there in 1889 and helped lead the development of St. Monica’s Church, where he eventually ministered to an impoverished congregation of 600 African-Americans. He still faced discrimination from priests who supported segregation in the pews. Yet Tolton became known for his devotion to the destitute. At 43, in 105-degree weather, Tolton suffered from heat stroke and died.

Throughout his life, Tolton refused to despair. He always remembered the heavily accented words of Father Herman Schaeffermeyer, a German-born priest he had met in Quincy: “If God vonts you to be a priest, you vill be von.”

America’s first black priest isn’t the only candidate to become the first American-born black person to achieve canonization. Henriette DeLille of New Orleans also is venerable. The next step for both is beatification, which calls for the verification of a miracle. Beyond that is sainthood, which requires a second miracle.

“We ask Tolton’s intercession for the healing of our nation as he sought in his own priesthood to bring white and black together but suffered indignities in that effort,” Bishop Perry says. At a time when it feels as if America could use a miracle or two, Father Augustus Tolton may be the saint it needs.

Mr. Miller is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College.
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An African American Saint For Our Time / Wall Street Journal 2 weeks 4 days ago #390262

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Beautiful. Thanks JSJ.

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An African American Saint For Our Time / Wall Street Journal 2 weeks 4 days ago #390270

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What a great story, as usual thank you JSJ.
It would truly be uplifting to the spirit if Father Tolton would be named a Saint. It would be a tornado of fresh air at a time when it is greatly needed here in North America.
Hoping it occurs sooner than later.

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