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An impressive statue of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton often went unnoticed, tending to blend in with the front of St. Peter School in Quincy, Illinois.
A parishioner challenged Monsignor Leo Enlow, pastor of St. Peter Parish, to move the statue to a more prominent, contemplative place on the church property.
It is now the center of a landscaped prayer garden, along with a bench from the old St. Peter Church, where Fr. Tolton worshipped God and served at the altar with his St. Peter School classmates.
Fr. Tolton (1854-97), formerly enslaved in Missouri, became the Roman Catholic Church’s first recognizably Black priest in the United States.
Adorning a nearby retaining wall around St. Peter Church are nine recently completed stone plaques depicting important moments in the life of Fr. Tolton, who is under formal consideration for being declared a saint.
Among the inscribed illustrations are his baptism in St. Peter Church in Brush Creek, Missouri, in what is now part of the Jefferson City diocese, and his family’s daring escape from enslavement in Missouri to freedom in Illinois.
“This is a tribute to Augustus Tolton as it describes his life, his trials, his sufferings — a detail of his history as he endured so much with faith, hope and a lot of love,” Msgr. Enlow said of the plaques, designed by parishioner Tim Haubrich.
The pastor blessed the garden and historical plaques after Mass the morning of Nov. 10, the 110th anniversary of the death of Fr. Tolton’s mother, Martha Jane Chisley Tolton, who protected her son, prayed with him and helped him persevere.
Msgr. Enlow spoke of Fr. Tolton’s heroic virtue and determination to answer his priestly calling in spite of overwhelming obstacles.
“He had so much to overcome in his life being a black American,” Msgr. Enlow noted. “He was rejected, treated as less than a human being because of the color of his skin, and yet persevered in doing God’s will in his life.”
Fr. Tolton’s father died while serving in the Union Army in the Civil War.
“Thankfully,” the pastor stated, “with God’s grace, Fr. Tolton and his mother and siblings made the crossing of the Mississippi River at Hannibal and took up residence in Quincy. Fortunately, he found a home here at St. Peter, where he attended school, served Mass and received his sacraments.
“With a sense of pride in his accomplishments, we can learn from his life, knowing that with God’s grace, all things are possible,” Msgr. Enlow stated.
The recently relocated statue, donated in memory of the mother of longtime pastor Father Roy Bauer, now deceased, stood outside the entrance to St. Peter School for nearly three decades.
In blessing its new location, Msgr. Enlow prayed that God would allow the statue to “remind us of Fr. Tolton’s love and devotion to You.”
Msgr. Enlow called upon God to make the garden a place of prayer and beautify, “and help us always be reminded of the growth of a faith You planted in a young man who served You so willingly.”
Mindful of what is depicted on the last of the stone plaques — Fr. Tolton joining the Communion of Saints in heaven — Msgr. Enlow prayed for God to help the Church formally recognize Fr. Tolton as a saint, “swiftly and soon.”
This year, St. Peter parishioners also contributed to beautifying Fr. Tolton’s resting place in St. Peter Cemetery and making it more inviting to pilgrims.
“We have planted flowers, done some landscaping, and then this summer we were able to put in a concrete drive,” Msgr. Enlow noted.
He expressed deep gratitude to all the people who made these projects possible.
“Between the Tolton grave and the Tolton Memorial wall and the landscaping in front of the Tolton statue, we truly are ready for the venerable to become a saint!” the pastor stated.
“As we celebrate Augustus being one with us here on earth, we pray that he is now one with the multitude of saints in heaven,” he said.