Celebrating Fr. Tolton’s legacy

A call to confront, overcome shameful history together



Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton’s legacy is as much about the future as it is about the past.

The best way to honor him is by “moving forward, growing stronger, giving greater honor and glory to God as a community ... together,” stated Dominican Father Richard Litzau, pastor of St. Thomas More Newman Center parish in Columbia.

Fr. Tolton, born into slavery in northeastern Missouri in what is now the Jefferson City diocese, overcame tremendous obstacles in the late 19th century and became the Roman Catholic Church’s first black priest in the United States.

“He helps us to realize that our history is something we can move beyond and move past, and we do that as a community,” said Fr. Litzau.

The pastor spoke briefly during the parish’s fourth annual Fr. Tolton Legacy Society Mass and Luncheon. 

The event marked the anniversary of Fr. Tolton’s birth on April 1, 1854, and of his priestly ordination on April 24, 1886.

Father Leonard Gicheru, pastor of St. Monica parish in Kansas City, presided at this year’s Mass and preached the homily.

The choir from St. Monica, a multi-ethnic, predominantly African-American parish, led the singing, along with members of the St. Thomas More Newman Center parish’s Sunday morning choir.

“Lord, we are most grateful that You have gathered us here this afternoon to meditate and ask for the intercession of Fr. Tolton in our lives,” Fr. Gicheru, who grew up in Kenya, prayed. “We ask that You help us to be great examples of faith and courage, to speak whenever we need to speak and witness whenever we need to witness.”

“Intrinsic goodness”

In his homily, Fr. Gicheru spoke of how Jesus showed mercy and compassion rather than judgement and condemnation to the woman caught in adultery.

“This Gospel reading (John 8:1-11) is perhaps one of the best showcases of Jesus’s mercy and compassion,” Fr. Gicheru stated.

But it also highlights the Savior’s command to “go and sin no more.”

“Jesus is saying, ‘Go and start a new life. Forget the past, for I have already forgiven you,’” the priest stated.

Fr. Gicheru called to mind St. Teresa of Kolkata’s dictum: “If you judge other people, you have no time to love them.”

He noted that Fr. Tolton consistently bore the injustice of prejudice and racial bias throughout his life.

“Why was this servant of God and a humble priest treated so badly?” the homilist asked. “You bet it was because of the wrong judgement that was cast upon him.”

Fr. Tolton was born at a time when slaves were judged to be less than human.

His father died of dysentery as a soldier for the Union Army, hoping to fight for a better life for his wife and children.

After escaping to Quincy, Illinois, Young Augustus and his brother and sister unjustly grew up without a father figure. Their mother would toil so they could have the basic necessities.

The future Fr. Tolton had to leave one Catholic grade school because of the uproar created by some of the parents of his classmates.

He grew up practicing his faith, excelling in his studies at a neighboring Catholic school and working hard to help provide for his family.

Becoming aware of his priestly calling, he was denied admission to every Catholic seminary in the United States due to his skin color.

With help from those who respected and believed in him, he was received into the Propagandum Fidei, a pontifical missionary society headquartered in Rome.

He studied for six years at the society’s Urban College in Rome and was ordained to the Holy Priesthood in 1886.

He hoped to become a missionary in Africa, but his superiors sent him back to Quincy “to bring light and hope to his own people here in the United States,” Fr. Gicheru stated.

There, the new priest excelled as a pastor and shepherd of souls, helping black and whites grow deeper in their faith.

Several Protestant ministers were appalled at how effectively Fr. Tolton drew people to Catholic Christianity, while several fellow priests were uneasy with the way he drew blacks and whites together to worship God.

One priest told his white parishioners that going to Mass at Fr. Tolton’s black mission would not fulfill their Sunday obligation.

Fr. Tolton eventually sought and was granted a transfer to the Chicago archdiocese, where he ministered to people trapped in ghastly poverty by their skin color and lack of education.

 “He worked to promote the rights and the dignity of the marginalized in South Chicago until his death in July of 1897,” said Fr. Gicheru.

The preacher stated that in imitation of Christ and of Fr. Tolton, “we respect and honor each person, for even in their own sins and failures they are still created in the image and likeness of God. They have this intrinsic core of goodness that nothing can destroy.”

Amazing cast

At the luncheon, Fr. Tolton Legacy Society member Ann Schaeperkoetter pointed out that Fr. Tolton “would be 165 this year if he were still with us.”

She noted that God used “a wonderful supporting cast” of family members, friends, teachers and coworkers to help Fr. Tolton overcome the obstacles he endured.

“They were crucial in helping him live a grace-filled life,” she said.

Young Augustus’s parents planned to escape from the Eliot farm in Monroe County after the owner died in 1863.

They heard that his property would be appraised and sold to pay for debts. That meant that as slaves, the Toltons would probably be permanently separated from one another.

Ms. Schaeperkoetter spoke of Fr. Tolton’s mother, the priests, School Sisters of Notre Dame and Franciscan brothers who helped him obtain a good education, the people who recognized his potential and helped him pursue the Priesthood.

She talked about his seminary formators and classmates from all over the world at the Society for the Propagation of the Faith’s Urban College in Rome, and the cardinal prefect who was inspired to send Fr. Tolton back to the United States as a missionary to his homeland.

“Despite isolation and economic hardship, Fr. Tolton remained a symbol of fidelity, priestly dignity and constancy in the midst of suffering,” she said.

She talked about the archbishop of Chicago, who invited him to minister to black Catholics on the city’s South Side.

She touched on the help he received from Daniel Rudd, founder of the National Black Catholic Congress and publisher of the first national Catholic newspaper for blacks; and Mother Katherine Drexel, a woman of wealth who committed her life to ministering to Native Americans and African Americans.

“‘Fr. Gus,’ as he was affectionately called, was well accepted but was alone in shaping some semblance of a Catholic community in the streets and alleys of the black ghetto,” she said.

He died of heat stroke at age 43, while heading out on sick calls in 105-degree heat in 1897.

“Father Augustus Tolton proved what the human spirit can accomplish despite the evils of racism and discrimination,” said Ms. Schaeperkoetter.

“It remains the task of the Church to raise up his holiness for the edification of the Church and to encourage greater justice in American society,” she said.

“Most of us will never become (canonized) saints,” she acknowledged. “But like Fr. Tolton and his many supporters, we can all work for justice in our own times.”

Path to sainthood

Fr. Tolton Legacy Society member Joan Pottinger gave an update on the progress of the work that officially began in 2010 in the Church to have Fr. Tolton declared a saint.

The nine-member Vatican Theological Commission — the second commission that considered his cause for Sainthood — examined his writings and teachings for theological soundness and unanimously voted that his cause for sainthood would be moved forward to the cardinals and archbishops in the Congregation for Saints Causes for a final vote.

“And after that final vote, it would be to send a decree of Fr. Tolton’s heroic virtues, to Pope Francis for his approval,” she said.

When the Pope declares that decree to be fully in effect, Fr. Tolton would receive the title of Venerable.

“That indicates that he lived a life of theological virtues of faith, hope and charity; and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, and fortitude and temperance at a heroic level,” said Ms. Pottinger.

Then, upon the authentication of a miracle attributed to God through Fr. Tolton’s intercession in heaven, he would be declared blessed.

Generally, another miracle would be required for him to be declared a saint.


Pray and act

The theme for this year’s Fr. Tolton celebration was “Should we be each other’s keeper?”

Fr. Tolton Legacy Society member Terrie Folz said it would be a shame to have a Mass and meal in honor of Fr. Tolton without talking about ways to apply his example and the day’s Scripture readings to everyday life.

“During his lifetime, fellow Christians did not always accept Fr. Tolton as a brother,” she noted. “Yet he had a great love for the Church and all people of God.”

She asked the people at each table to discuss what it means to be baptized in Christ, and what it means to be “my brother’s keeper,” (Genesis 4:9).

People offered summaries of their discussions.

“We can help support the communities around us through our work in our neighborhoods,” said one participant. “We need to be more aware, more sensitive and ready to take the energy back, in all these many small things that come to us throughout our day.”

Another speaker said to remember that all people are God’s children.

“We’re all part of the Body of Christ, and part of being Christian is to help raise each other up,” she said.

“We all have a part in protecting each other, in our physical, emotional and spiritual welfare,” a third speaker stated.

“We are baptized into unity with Christ and unity with others to share the message of Christ,” said another participant.

“We are ambassadors of Christ,” another stated. “How we think, how we act and how we talk shows how we are accountable to one another. Even if they are not in the word of God or part of God’s family, it’s our job to lead them, to show them what God is all about.”

Another participant talked on justice and Catholic social teaching, which calls on all people to be prayerfully aware of the needs of others, and active in using all legitimate available avenues to help.

“We don’t just pray for people,” he said. “God wants us to take action on those issues also and help bring the message of our Church and Christians at large to the social world out there, not just ourselves.”

Another pointed out how parents and grandparents lead children to a life of virtue through teaching and example.

“The family becomes the seed bed where these virtues are nurtured,” he said. “We shed the light. Small, kind things attract people to us and to Jesus. That’s what Fr. Tolton reminds us.”

Prayers in heaven

Parishioners Michelle Sisson-White and Avilla Hendricks, co-chairs for the Fr. Tolton Legacy Society and the annual event, led the antiphonal praying of the prayer written by Bishop Joseph N. Perry for Fr. Tolton’s canonization.

“Fr. Tolton is praying for us now,” Fr. Gicheru told the assembly. “He’s in heaven and He’s praying for us, interceding for us.”