Venerable Fr. Tolton inspires aspects of Cathedral renovation


Venerable Father Augustus Tolton received his priestly calling at baptism, so it’s only fitting that his likeness will help illuminate the new baptismal font in the renovated Cathedral of St. Joseph.

Born to enslaved parents and baptized in part of what is now the Jefferson City diocese, Fr. Tolton (1854-97) successfully fought to become the Roman Catholic Church’s first recognizably Black priest in the United States.

He is currently under formal consideration to be declared a saint.

Three important moments from his life will make up one of the new stained glass windows that are being created for the Cathedral, which is undergoing major renovation and renewal.

“This window depicts Fr. Tolton’s priestly ordination by the Cardinal Prefect for the Propagation of the Faith as the main scene in the middle; his baptism, which took place in our diocese, in the lower left; and his First Solemn Mass in the lower right,” Bishop W. Shawn McKnight stated.

All 13 new windows, which are being created by Associated Crafts & Willet Hauser studio in Winona, Minnesota, are designed to teach people of all ages about discipleship. They will illustrate aspects of Verse 2:42 from the Book of Acts: “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.”

Bishop McKnight said every fourth window in the series will include an image of a person whose life helps illustrate the three dimensions of Catholic communion: “what we believe” (the teaching of the Apostles), “how we live” (the communal life) and “how we pray” (breaking of the Bread and prayers).

“The very last stained glass window, which sits over the new baptistery and nearest to the altar, is the hagiographical window of how we pray,” the bishop said.

That will be the window depicting Fr. Tolton.

Mission field

Young Augustus Tolton escaped with his mother and siblings to Illinois during the Civil War. His father escaped and lost his life while fighting for the Union.

With help from God and from family and friends, “Gus” came to recognize his priestly calling and set about overcoming the tremendous obstacles to answering it.

No U.S. seminary would accept him because he was Black. He was eventually admitted to the Pontifical Urban College for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome, a seminary for Catholic missionaries.

Ordained in 1886 in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, he was missioned back to Quincy to serve among those who knew him.

Fr. Tolton came to believe that the Catholic Church was the only hope for lifting up Black people and reconciling a nation that had been torn apart by slavery and division.

He honed his preaching skills and put his beautiful singing voice to good use, drawing Black and white Catholics together for Mass each Sunday.

He ministered with grace and weathered many difficulties in Quincy before being reassigned to Chicago, where he served as pastor to some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable individuals until he died of heatstroke and exhaustion at age 43.

Cardinal Francis George OMI, now deceased, of Chicago opened a sainthood cause for Fr. Tolton in 2011.

Pope Francis in 2019 acknowledged Fr. Tolton’s heroic virtues and bestowed on him the title “Venerable” — meaning that he lived at a heroic level a life of faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.

An authenticated miracle attributed to God through Fr. Tolton’s intercession will be needed in order for him to be beatified (declared blessed), and yet another miracle for him to be declared a saint.

From light into light

The Cathedral of St. Joseph’s first major renovation in its 53-year history will incorporate classical elements into the familiar mid-century structure, enhancing its beauty, functionality, capacity for hospitality and uniquely Catholic identity.

Bishop McKnight noted that space near the sanctuary is being reserved for what is to become a shrine in Fr. Tolton’s memory in the event he is declared blessed.

“We cannot have images of people in the church for veneration until their beatification,” the bishop noted.

The niche will be decorated with marble imported from Africa, the continent from which Fr. Tolton’s ancestors were taken against their will, and to which he hoped as a seminarian to be sent as a missionary.

The stained glass windows between the new baptistery and the sanctuary will depict symbols of the Sacraments of Confession and Anointing of the Sick.

Another nearby window will depict “the Dawn from On High,” part of the litany of praise proclaimed by Zechariah, father of St. John the Baptist, in the first chapter of the Gospel According to Luke (68-79).

It heralds the ushering of God’s people into an era in which they will be able to worship and serve God freely.

Sunlight filtered through these and the other brightly colored windows will cast the burning incense in vibrant hues as it ascends toward God’s throne in heaven.

Since the Cathedral serves everyone in the diocese, Bishop McKnight invites Catholics from all parishes to contribute toward the cost of the renovation, as long as doing so does not reduce their regular, sacrificial support of their own parish.

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