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‘Even in his priesthood, some reviled him’: Effort to canonize African-American priest moves forward

Augustus Tolton was born into slavery in Missouri in 1854 and is considered to have been the first African-American priest in the United States. He ministered in Quincy, Illinois.
Wikimedia Commons

A diverse group of people were once parishioners under the ministry of Father Augustus Tolton in Quincy, Illinois, during the late 19th century. That is until the African-American priest was advised to get out of town. Tolton, who would eventually return to be buried in Quincy, suffered much controversy and isolation in his day.

“Through it all, he kept open arms for everyone, white or black,” Joseph Perry, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, said during St. Louis on the Air, “and was kind of mistreated because of that openness and accused of creating a situation of integration that society and the church was not ready for.”

On Tuesday’s show, Perry joined host Don Marsh to discuss the effort to canonize Tolton, who is considered to be the first African-American priest in the United States. Ordained in 1886, the former slave was born near Hannibal, Missouri, and ministered in both Quincy and Chicago.

Perry offered insight into a Vatican historical commission’s recent approval of the positio, an official position paper summarizing the historic facts, heroic virtue and alleged miracles of Tolton’s life. Perry described the paper as somewhat similar to a doctoral dissertation.

“That research took four years, from 2010 to 2014,” Perry said. “We amassed a dossier of several thousand pages of documents and correspondence and records and so forth, and that was signed, sealed and delivered by the late Cardinal Francis George. And then we dispatched that over to Rome in December of 2014.”

In February 2019, a theological commission will further investigate the documentation.

A designation of “venerable” would need to be recommended by the commission, approved by bishops and then by the pope. Subsequently, a beatification process would ensue to seek the approval of miracles Tolton allegedly performed.

Pope Francis would make the final determination on whether to grant Tolton sainthood, either waiving or requiring evidence of a second miracle.

Joseph Perry, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, gave an update on the canonization effort.
Credit Archdiocese of Chicago
Joseph Perry, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, gave an update on the canonization effort.

“There’s a panel … asked to examine the case record of a person’s illness and this sudden recovery,” Perry explained. “They are asked to determine whether the recovery is inexplicable in terms of known medical science today. They’re not asked to declare it a miracle – all they’re asked to do [is consider] this sudden turnaround in health: Is it a mystery? Is it explainable by medical science, or is it just absolutely unexplainable?”

Tolton died at the age of 43, after spending nine years in the priesthood during the tumultuous Reconstruction period.

“That’s the background to Tolton’s life,” Perry said. “He and his family escaped their owners right in the midst of the chaos of the Civil War. They were hunted down with bounty on their heads, so their escape had to be absolutely successful, because recaptured slaves were not promised anything nice once they went back into slavery.”

Obtaining an education was also extremely difficult in the U.S. given the terms of apartheid that existed at the time, but individual priests and nuns tutored him, and he was eventually accepted to study in Rome.

“Even in his priesthood, some reviled him, others accepted him,” Perry said, “but it caused him a lot of suffering and isolation.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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