The exhaustive work of researching Missouri native Venerable Father Augustus Tolton’s life and ministry is now completed.
“The next step toward declaring him a saint is in God’s hands,” said Bishop Joseph N. Perry, co-postulator for Fr. Tolton’s sainthood cause.
Fr. Tolton (1854-97), a former slave, became the Roman Catholic Church’s first black priest in the United States.
Pope Francis recently signed a decree stating that according to the best information available, obtained through scrupulous research, Fr. Tolton lived a heroically virtuous life.
Specifically, he put the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance into practice throughout his life and ministry.
That declaration is based on years of research and careful examination of all available historical documentation of Fr. Tolton’s life.
The Chicago archdiocese gathered and compiled all of this into a dossier and submitted it in 2014 to the Church’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Vatican City.
With the decree, Pope Francis has cleared the way for the next phase in the process of determining whether God wants the Church to declare Fr. Tolton a saint.
“The next stage is to wait for a sign from God that would move us into the realm of beatification,” said Bishop Perry.
Himself an African American, Bishop Perry is auxiliary bishop of Chicago, where Fr. Tolton ministered in the years leading up to his death in 1897.
The Pope’s declaration gives Fr. Tolton the title “Venerable” — a step toward being declared a saint.
In order for him to be beatified — given the title “Blessed” — a miracle, thoroughly investigated and validated by several objective experts, would have to be attributed to God through Fr. Tolton’s prayerful intercession in heaven.
Another miracle is generally required for someone who is Blessed to be declared a saint.
A slave no more
Some would consider it miraculous that Fr. Tolton ever made it to the Priesthood.
Born into slavery in northeastern Missouri and baptized in St. Peter Church outside Monroe City, he escaped as a child to Illinois with his mother and siblings during the Civil War.
He grew in faith, discerned a priestly calling and spent six years studying in Rome for the Priesthood, since no U.S. seminary would accept him because of his race.
He was ordained to the Holy Priesthood in 1886 in St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome.
He was sent back to Quincy, Illinois, to serve as a missionary in his own country.
He ministered with unfailing generosity and devotion while navigating the choppy waters of racial acceptance in Quincy and then in Chicago.
While ministering to some of that city’s poorest people, he died of heatstroke at age 43.
His earthly remains are at rest in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Quincy.
Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia is named in his honor.
“As long as God gives me life”
Bishop Perry oversaw the gathering of information for the cause, in keeping with the stringent requirements of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
He said the resulting historical dossier amounts to almost a doctoral dissertation in its scope and thoroughness.
“Yet, there are a lot of other little things we wish we did know about Fr. Tolton that unfortunately, history does not reveal to us,” he said.
For one thing, for decades after the Civil War ended, Fr. Tolton was concerned that his mother, his siblings and he could be captured and thrown back into slavery.
“He was very cautious about what he said in public, how he said it, and what if anything was left in print,” said Bishop Perry.
Like most other priests of his day, he tended to preach extemporaneously or from memory, leaving no written text behind.
“Nonetheless, he was probably one of the most documented individuals of his time, in terms of journalistic documentation and op-ed articles and editorials,” said Bishop Perry.
What Fr. Tolton did leave behind offers inspirational insight.
Bishop Perry pointed to a letter Fr. Tolton sent to St. Katherine Drexel, who had forsaken her wealth in order to minister to Native Americans and African Americans.
In the letter, he wrote: “I shall work and pull at it as long as God gives me life.”
“That has been an inspiration for me,” said Bishop Perry. “He recognized that he really needed the Lord’s strength in order to continue to do the ministry as he wanted to do it.”
“A light for our times”
Bishop Perry urges everyone to pray for God to honor His servant by granting favors and miracles through Fr. Tolton’s intercession.
“We humbly ask Him to let Fr. Tolton be a light in our times,” said Bishop Perry. “We believe this is all being done by divine providence, so we ask God for a sign of His approval.”
The bishop was quick to encourage openness to whatever way God chooses to respond to those prayers.
He asks anyone who believes they have received favors or even a miracle from God through Fr. Tolton’s intercession to share that information with the people promoting the cause.
Such reports will be kept confidential while they are being investigated, he said.
“The great trial”
The purpose of recognizing people as saints after their death is to allow them to help God lead others to heaven, so they can be saints, too.
It’s also a way to carry forward the witness God’s servants give in this life.
“We ask boldly and confidently for God to give us that gift so that we can invoke Fr. Tolton’s name at the altar and have him continue to be an inspiration for the social needs of our time,” said Bishop Perry.
He noted that in spite of the progress modern societies have made since Fr. Tolton’s time, people are still being pushed to the margins and having their dignity disregarded because of their skin color, place of origin or language.
“These things still seem to keep dogging the human situation as well as the life of the Church,” he said.
Fr. Tolton endured such ignominies throughout a life spent helping others and trying to be as pleasing to God as humanly possible — with his faith, hope and love remaining intact.
“That’s part of why we believe he is a saint, standing before God in heaven,” said Bishop Perry. “Because he did survive the great test, the great trial.”
If Bishop Perry could introduce people personally to Fr. Tolton, he would say, “Here is a brother priest who has labored long in the vineyard, and you can see the trace of it in his face and in his hands.”
For him, Fr. Tolton is a friend worth staying in contact with.
“I feel I know him pretty well,” he said. “And I look forward to meeting him someday.
“Maybe when I take my last breath, he will come and usher me home. I would like that very much.”
To learn more about Fr. Tolton’s cause for sainthood, visit: