“It’s one of those signs that holiness doesn’t know color.”
Father Peter Chineke commented on the panoply of people who had processed from St. Peter Church in Quincy, Illinois, to Venerable Father Augustus Tolton’s burial place in St. Peter Cemetery.
“His story is very inspiring,” said Fr. Chineke, a priest of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, who grew up in Nigeria and like Fr. Tolton, is Black. “It inspires us to live a life of courage, a life of love, a life of faith.”
It was the 125th anniversary of Fr. Tolton’s death of heatstroke in Chicago at age 43.
Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, processed with a crowd of several hundred people to the cemetery and offered Mass where Fr. Tolton’s earthly remains await the resurrection.
“It is our love for good ‘Fr. Gus’ that brings us together today, to make this pilgrimage to the grave of this holy priest,” the bishop stated in his homily. “As we do so, we ask the Lord to allow us to imitate the virtue we see exemplified throughout the life of Fr. Tolton.”
Born in 1854 into a family of enslaved people in what is now part of the Diocese of Jefferson City, and baptized in old St. Peter Church in Brush Creek, Fr. Tolton exhibited exceptional patience and persistence in becoming the Roman Catholic Church’s first noticeably Black priest in the United States.
Pope Francis has acknowledged Fr. Tolton’s heroic virtues as part of the formal process of determining whether he should be declared a saint of the Church.
“Mother Church holds him up as one worthy of our respect because of his heroic virtue in living the Christian life,” Bishop Paprocki noted. “But because he has not yet been raised to the dignity of the altars, we have gathered at his grave to ask the Lord that Augustine Tolton, His servant and priest, may gaze on the Lord’s beauty with the angels and the saints.”
Bishop Paprocki urged the faithful to emulate Fr. Tolton’s long-suffering patience, as well as the courageous, obedient and loving way he carried out his mission.
The bishop talked about the patience Fr. Tolton showed while living in slavery and later while being taunted by classmates for being Black; upon being rejected by every Catholic seminary in the United States while trying to answer his calling to the Priesthood; and even while enduring the racist and jealous persecution from some of his fellow priests.
“In all of these difficult and painful situations, his stout heart paved the way for compassionate love to prevail, just as it did in the life of our Master, Christ Jesus,” said Bishop Paprocki.
Fr. Tolton suffered with Christ, “and because of his union with the Crucified Savior, we pray that he ‘may also be glorified with Him,’” the bishop stated, echoing Romans 8:17.
Specifically, said Bishop Paprocki, that means fully sharing in Christ’s Paschal Mystery — His passion, death, resurrection and ascension.
“Wait for the Lord”
Young Augustus escaped with his family across the Mississippi River to Quincy during the Civil War. He overcame overwhelming obstacles along the road to Priesthood before being accepted into formation at the Urban College in Rome, run by the missionary Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.
He was ordained in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome in 1886 and offered his First Solemn Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Hoping to be sent as a missionary to Africa, he was missioned instead back to Quincy. He ministered with great courage and pastoral sensitivity there and later in Chicago until his death on July 9, 1897.
“If we are to imitate the virtue of Fr. Tolton, we, too, must seek to be united to the sufferings of Christ throughout our lives so that we might also be glorified with Him,” said Bishop Paprocki. “A most important way for us to be united to sufferings of Christ is to imitate the courageous patience of Fr. Tolton, especially in a society that is so quick to rage.”
The bishop said there are numerous occasions for people to practice the virtue of courageous patience today.
“Opportunities for long-suffering abound in our families, in our places of employment, in our schools, and in society generally,” he said. “What is needed for us is to be stout-hearted and wait for the Lord, as Fr. Tolton did.”
“The way forward”
A steady breeze stirred the branches of the mature trees that formed a canopy over the people and the altar.
The aroma of the burning incense mixed with the sweet essence of honeysuckle and other flowers and blossoms in full bloom.
St. Peter Cemetery is a quiet, pastoral sanctuary in the middle of what has become a thriving part of Quincy, surrounded by stores and busy roads.
There are headstone ranging between 100 and 150 years old. Many of them bear Irish surnames, as St. Peter was originally made up of mostly Irish immigrants and their children.
A large stone cross marking the burial place of Fr. Tolton and at least one other priest is at the highest and most prominent place in the cemetery.
Bishop Paprocki told the congregation that living lives of courageous patience will, by God’s grace, produce the same compassionate love that led Fr. Tolton to welcome all people who came to him as brothers and sisters in Christ.
“Fr. Tolton shows us the way forward, the way to advance the coming of the Kingdom of God: courageous patience marked by compassionate love in the manner of the only Redeemer of mankind,” the bishop said.
Bishop Paprocki also asked everyone to pray for recognizable miracles that are attributable to God through Fr. Tolton’s intercession in heaven, in order for him to be declared Blessed and eventually, God willing, a Saint.
“A holy man”
At the end of Mass, Bishop Paprocki led the people in offering prayers inspired by Fr. Tolton for an end to racism and for priestly vocations, followed by the official prayer for Fr. Tolton’s canonization.
The recessional hymn was “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” Fr. Tolton’s favorite hymn.
Afterward, Fr. Chineke commented to a TV reporter that Fr. Tolton is a role model for all people.
“We are all called to live a life of virtue, a life of holiness,” Fr. Chineke stated. “People are coming to the understanding that Fr. Tolton was a holy man.”