People who knew him eulogized Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, a former slave from northeastern Missouri, as “an apostle to the people.”
Namely, he knew what it took to lead them to Christ.
“If ever there was an apostle on American soil, this man was it,” stated Norbertine Father A. Gerard Jordan of Chicago, a member of the Order of the Canons Regular of Prémontré.
Fr. Jordan, who serves as special assistant to Chicago’s diocesan postulator for Venerable Fr. Tolton’s sainthood cause, gave on online presentation on “Twelve Gifts of Tolton Spirituality” on a Wednesday afternoon this spring.
About 40 people took part from locations throughout the United States.
The interactive discussion took place while many people in Chicago and other locales throughout the United States were sheltering in place.
“The Church is right here!” stated Fr. Jordan. “When we are back together, we will worship first, and we’re going to receive His Body and Blood to nourish us. And after that, we’re going to go forth and do the work — and the exact nature of that work is something Fr. Tolton helps us understand.”
Heart of an apostle
Fr. Tolton was born into a family of slaves and baptized into the Catholic Church in Brush Creek a few years before the Civil War broke out.
He escaped as a child into Illinois with his mother and two siblings, while the war that would claim his father’s life was still raging.
The family remained Catholic, and young Augustus gradually become aware of his priestly calling.
No seminary in the United States would accept him.
He persevered with help from God, his family, local priests, School Sisters of Notre Dame, Franciscan friars in Quincy, Illinois, and the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome.
Ordained to the Holy Priesthood in Rome inside the Basilica of St. John Lateran in 1886, he was sent back to Quincy as a missionary to his own homeland.
After weathering many difficulties, he was reassigned to Chicago, where he ministered among some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable individuals.
He died of heatstroke at age 43 and is now under serious consideration for beatification and possibly an official declaration of sainthood by the Church.
“Fr. Tolton,” said Fr. Jordan, “was everything that an apostle was in the Book of Acts, everything that an apostle was as a student when Jesus walked, and everything that an apostle was when Jesus ascended into heaven and sent them forward to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth.”
With help from God and many others, Fr. Tolton overcame tremendous obstacles toward becoming the Roman Catholic Church’s first recognizably Black priest in the United States.
After his ordination, people were initially drawn to the spectacle of who he was and how he came to be.
“And once they got past that, they got to where they just wanted to know him,” said Fr. Jordan. “They wanted to follow him. They wanted to hear him preach.
“Because he didn’t preach ‘Tolton,’” Fr. Jordan insisted. “He preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
“About all of us”
Fr. Tolton persistently preached the sacraments and put them into practice beyond the church walls.
“He always was noted for his ability to be in the presence of the divine,” Fr. Jordan stated. “He loved to be around the altar, and after leaving the altar, he would go out into the community and bring the Body of Christ to people.”
Many of his parishioners lived in an intensely poor neighborhood that grew up around an old slaughterhouse.
“And just to know that he had to go in and out of these homes that had these big sewer ditches in front of them and you had the smell coming from the slaughterhouse — you’ve got to have a kind heart and a willing spirit to bring the sacraments to somebody in that kind of environment and do it with joy and devotion,” said Fr. Jordan.
But Fr. Tolton was not a “Lone Ranger,” something made evident by his favorite hymn, “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.”
“Not ‘I praise Thy name,’ but ‘WE praise Thy name,’” Fr. Jordan noted. “His love for the hymn stems from his love for being associated with a community of faith for true worship and communion.”
He emphasized that Fr. Tolton’s ministry was all-inclusive.
“If you think this is a just about a Black priest, you’re missing something very important,” Fr. Jordan insisted.
“This is about a community that Jesus brought together because of the life that He gave a man through his mother — a life that he sustained because his father gave his life in the military so he could lead it — a life of joy because he had sisters who loved him — a life lived when the children bullied him and these nuns took him in and saved him — a life lived because a priest paid for his tuition and his travel to Rome.”
“It’s not about one man,” Fr. Jordan continued. “Tolton spirituality and Tolton ministry is about all of us: none greater, none lesser, not smarter.”
People recognized in Fr. Tolton the image of the Christ Who came among them as a suffering servant.
They heard Jesus in Fr. Tolton’s preaching and recognized Jesus’s presence when Fr. Tolton accompanied them on the journey of ongoing conversion.
“You don’t lead folks by getting in front of them and saying, ‘Follow me,’” Fr. Jordan noted. “No, you get on the SIDE of them and say, ‘Listen, let’s go together!’”
What was already there
Fr. Tolton did not reinvent anything in order to become an effective evangelizer.
“He simply built what was there,” said Fr. Jordan. “He reimagined how Black folks could fit into a Church that already exists — how Black folks could be seen and heard in a Church that already exists — how Black people could flourish and grow and be a witness and an example in a Church that already exists.
“And that’s what we need to do — reimagine it so folks can see and hear the beauty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our Black lives as they are lived,” he said.
In word and deed, Fr. Tolton led souls to the promise of heaven.
To do that, he preached a conversion of heart that leads to forgiveness and reconciliation and to the building-up of authentic Christian community.
For Fr. Tolton, that experience of community began within his family and spread to their neighborhood in Quincy, to their parish and to all the people who helped him become a priest.
“There is nothing like a mother’s love to give you a strong faith foundation, and that’s a true gift,” said Fr. Jordan.
“His sister is a part of that, by the way,” the priest continued. “The white priest and the nuns who journeyed with him are a part of that spirituality.”
Following in his footsteps
Fr. Jordan said learning about saints and those being considered for a declaration of sainthood is first and foremost a call to emulate them as God’s witnesses.
“And in accessing and examining the things that I’ve encountered while learning and loving the story of Father Augustus Tolton, I realize that it was a story of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and less about being a slave and less about being a Black man and less about being an ordained minister,” said Fr. Jordan.
What’s really valuable about Fr. Tolton’s legacy is how it continues to help people approach, receive and then become a witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“He was a suffering servant who found joy in enduring his sufferings,” said Fr. Jordan. “And this is familiar to us as Christians, because the Gospel talks about the suffering of the Christ and then the joy of the Resurrection and then the joys of ascension into heaven.”
“Twelve Gifts of Tolton Spirituality” was part of St. Benedict the African parish’s “On Time God” online series in Chicago.