They filled the heavens with sweet accord.
Pilgrims from Chicago sang “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” while gathered at the place of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton’s baptism.
“It was his favorite hymn,” Bishop Joseph N. Perry pointed out. “It was played by a band and sung when he arrived in Quincy after his ordination, and sung again at his funeral.”
Bishop Perry, auxiliary bishop of Chicago and co-postulator for Fr. Tolton’s sainthood cause, led 29 people on a pilgrimage to Quincy, Illinois, and Brush Creek, Missouri.
Fr. Tolton, born into a system of slavery on a northeastern Missouri plantation, was baptized as a baby in the old St. Peter Church in Brush Creek and grew up in Quincy.
Overcoming tremendous difficulty on account of his skin color, he eventually succeeded in becoming the Roman Catholic Church’s first black priest in North America.
The Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith sent him back to the United States as a missionary. He ministered in Quincy and then in Chicago until his death in 1897.
His earthly remains are at rest in Quincy.
The Chicago archdiocese opened the sainthood cause for him in 2010.
Symbols of hope
Bishop Perry, himself an African-American descendant of slaves, has been leading an annual Brush Creek pilgrimage for nine years.
The journey included stops at significant places in Fr. Tolton’s life and ministry, as well as his burial place in St. Peter Cemetery in Quincy.
Bishop Perry was delighted to speak with Carl Thompson, who owns the farm where Fr. Tolton was born and where his family worked as slaves.
The pilgrims prayed Evening Prayer and sang hymns in St. Peter Church in Brush Creek, built around 1860 on the site of the plank church in which Fr. Tolton was baptized in 1854.
In the churchyard, said Bishop Perry, “we watched the solemn posture of persons from our group and even the tears shed by several upon visiting the two cemeteries there at Brush Creek — one for area citizens, the other with unmarked graves of deceased slaves.”
It reminded them of the thousands of former slaves who lived holy lives like Fr. Tolton but died without leaving much of a record of who they were.
“They were saints in what they endured; they were symbols of hope and good will; they were God’s precious ones,” said Bishop Perry. “We need to study their stories for the sake of the challenges that continue to plague us.”
Bishop Perry believes the most stirring experiences the pilgrims had on their journey were the stops in Brush Creek and at Fr. Tolton’s grave in Quincy, where they prayed together upon arriving and again before returning to Chicago.
They went to the old Elliot Farm in Ralls County, where Fr. Tolton was born, and visited with Carl Thompson, who now owns the property.
“We can’t find anything here to tell you a saint was born here — other than that we know he was!” Mr. Thompson told Bishop Perry and the rest of the pilgrims.
Not only was Fr. Tolton born on that farm, so was Mr. Thompson, 99 years later.
“I’ve been around Brush Creek my whole life,” he said. “I started serving Mass at St. Peter’s when I was in second grade.”
The late Monsignor Edward Connolly, who was pastor of Holy Rosary parish in Monroe City for decades before retiring to Brush Creek, would tell the young altar server about the slave who was born nearby and grew up to be a priest.
Mr. Thompson shared with the pilgrims as many of those stories as he could remember.
“You could tell they were in awe just to be there,” he recalled. “They inspired me just by how passionate they were about what they were doing.”
Mr. Thompson has been Catholic his whole life, but only now is he starting to appreciate the depths of God’s grace and the richness of the faith.
There has been some sickness and sadness lately in parts of his family, which he believes has drawn him and his wife closer to God.
“It seems to me that I’ve been busy all my life and maybe took my religion for granted,” he said. “Sometimes, you need things like all of this to help you see what’s really important.”
He now considers with amazement that a likely saint once walked the same roads and worked in the same fields as he.
“How can I be so blessed as to have been born and to have lived on that farm?” he said.
“Peace and the Good”
The pilgrims also visited St. Francis Solanus College (now known as Quincy University), where Franciscan friars helped Fr. Tolton prepare academically for priestly studies and search for a seminary that would admit him.
Bishop Perry believes those Franciscans’ eagerness to help is a testament to their order and its founder.
“St. Francis carries a reputation as a gentle and sensitive soul who had insights into the human hearts of others,” the bishop stated.
Franciscans in the United States “have always demonstrated themselves to be unapologetic servants of the poor, from the poverello himself, the poor Francis,” Bishop Perry added.
“There was no duplicity or anything harsh in him,” he noted. “His Franciscan family is now well over 800 years old!”
The prayer Bishop Perry composed in 2009 for Fr. Tolton’s canonization points out that Fr. Tolton “labored among us in times of contradiction, times that were both beautiful and paradoxical.”
Likewise, said the bishop, “we also are living in times of great beauty and great contradiction.”
“If we would move forward with the inspiration of the saints, we must do so with integrity and simplicity of heart as did the saints and the would-be saints,” he said.
“One of these,” he emphasized, “is Fr. Tolton, who offers a model for suffering, generous priestly service needed for these times.”
“These times” are often punctuated by senseless acts of violence, especially in large cities.
While not excusing such behavior, Bishop Perry noted that people who are disenfranchised often turn to violence “when life turns miserable for them or structures are seen as not being there to assist their well-being.”
Now as in decades past, they need to have the Good News preached to them with hearts filled with courage and compassion.
“We Catholics have within our hands and hearts an opportunity to show off the great light of the Gospel — a summons that never loses its force, precisely because we are believers and love and admire Jesus Christ,” said Bishop Perry.
“The Tolton story is one that helps with the way we raise children and grandchildren and forge bonds among adults,” he said. “Tolton was a pioneer with indiscriminate welcoming of everyone — black, white, whatever.”
In unceasing chorus
Bishop Perry is convinced that God continues to work through the intercession of His venerable servant from Brush Creek.
The bishop eagerly awaits the miracle that will eventually lead to the singing of Fr. Tolton’s favorite hymn by faithful throngs in St. Peter’s Square.
“Yes, truly, we hope such a magnificent rendition can be played at his beatification and canonization!” he said.
He hopes to lead another pilgrimage to Quincy and Brush Creek next year.