Father Augustus Tolton was born into slavery just outside of Hannibal in Ralls County, Missouri in 1854. He would go on to become the first recognized African-American priest to be ordained by the Roman Catholic Church in the United States in 1886 at the age of 31.
The road to that point in his life alone was tough. Rejected from every seminary he applied to in the United States because of the color of his skin, Tolton had to travel to Rome to study and become ordained. Although he initially expected he to be sent to Africa as a missionary, he was surprisingly sent back to the Midwest to serve the African-American community in Quincy, Illinois. He would go on to serve in Chicago as well.
Today, Tolton is being considered for sainthood. The formal canonization proceedings began in 2011 and continue today, waiting to be fully evaluated by the Vatican.
On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, of the Archdiocese of Chicago, joined the program to share information about the canonization process. Perry is the official guiding the process of canonization along, making the case for Tolton.
Also joining the program was Chuck Scholz, the former mayor of Quincy, Illinois, and attorney at Scholz and Scholz, LLP. His grandfather attended Tolton’s church and Scholz also believes Tolton should be canonized.
Listen as the two discuss Father Tolton's life and legacy:
“Canonization is the highest honor the Catholic Church can bestow upon a Christian,” Perry said. “It allows that person’s name to be invoked in an act of worship and allows that person’s name to be listed with the saints known worldwide and even locally where he has significance for certain groups of people.”
The process of research into Tolton’s life took four years, amounting to about 5,000 pages. Currently, various Vatican officials are putting together a “positsio,” a heavily-documented biography of Tolton’s life showing what made him an extraordinary Christian, which will be reviewed by a historical and theological commission. That “positsio” is expected to be completed by summer’s end.
After the review, a group of Cardinals will review the information and provide their thoughts to the Pope on whether Tolton should be canonized. The pope will then decree Tolton had lived a virtuous life, making him a “venerable.”
There are two more stages that Tolton must pass to become a saint. First, “beatification,” which proves Tolton performed at least one miracle. And then, finally, sainthood, where two miracles must be proven.
“Tolton’s miracles involve two seemingly-impossible turnarounds in health,” Perry said. “One woman was slated to have a leg amputated because of gangrene and there was a complete turnaround after she invoked Tolton.”
In another, more recent case, a seminarian had collapsed, losing oxygen to his brain and was unresponsive to any efforts to revive him. Cardinal Francis George and Perry were in Quincy at the time, exploring the burial site of Tolton, and received a call from the family to pray for the seminarian. In the meantime, the family placed a card of Tolton’s face near his bed. Then, the seminarian woke up, Perry said.
Scholz said he had known of Tolton his whole life but it wasn’t until the process of canonization started that he realized he had devoted followers across the country and globe.
“In my family, my great grandfather knew Father Tolton,” Scholz said. “When Tolton returned to Quincy from Rome, he was assigned a mission church of St. Boniface, the German church, to minister to African-Americans. Quincy had quite an influx of African-Americans from across the river in the former slave state of Missouri during the Civil War. Father Tolton was charismatic and people spoke of his sermons and singing voice. Many white people started going to his church, St. Joseph’s. My own great grandfather was instructed by his mother to go to St. Boniface but he would disobey and go to St. Joseph’s to hear Tolton.”
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