Ambassadors celebrate Fr. Tolton’s life, ministry during Mass at Columbia Newman Center


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Only through God’s life-giving love can people overcome the lures and tempests of this world and claim their rightful place in his eternal kingdom.

“Whatever scares you, whatever distracts you has been conquered by the grace of God!” Father Joseph Luzindana proclaimed to an overflowing congregation in the St. Thomas More Newman Center in Columbia.

“And if you don’t have that grace, you better kneel down and get it!” the priest stated.

Fr. Luzindana, a missionary priest to this diocese from the Archdiocese of Kampala, Uganda, presided and preached the homily at this year’s Venerable Father Augustus Tolton Celebration Mass, coordinated by the Columbia chapter of the Father Tolton Ambassadors.

Fr. Luzindana pleaded in his homily for everyone to become like Fr. Tolton (1854-97) — Missouri native and the first recognizably Black, Roman Catholic priest in the United States — who imitated Jesus, the Good Shepherd, in every aspect of his ministry.

“A slave said ‘yes’ to God!” Fr. Luzindana said with relish. “He was not received in the seminaries of this country, but Jesus received him and said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”

Fr. Tolton was born into a family of enslaved people and baptized into the Catholic Church at Brush Creek in northeastern Missouri.

He escaped as a child with his family to Illinois, a free state, during the Civil War.

In learning about and practicing his faith, he came to realize that God was calling him to be a priest.

The overwhelming obstacles he had to overcome — including his poverty and lack of education and the fact that no U.S. seminary would accept him because he was Black — wound up magnifying God’s glory.

Because Fr. Tolton did become a priest, ministering with tremendous faith and devotion despite ongoing hardships that he endured to the very end.

He is now one of six African American Catholics who are under formal consideration for being declared saints.

“We need people who can understand like Fr. Tolton,” said Fr. Luzindana.

“A son of this Missouri soil, he’s no longer a slave,” Fr. Luzindana stated. “He became a great servant of God.”

That same grace that allowed Fr. Tolton to minister without reserve despite overt racism in his Church and his society remains alive and active today.

“We cannot talk about Fr. Tolton without talking about that same grace that’s in you and me,” Fr. Luzindana pointed out.

“That’s why we are here. This great grace of God working in a slave,” the priest continued. “He heard the voice of God calling him, and despite all the waves and the storms and winds of the world, he said yes to the voice of God.”

Fr. Luzindana passionately implored the adults to stand between their children and a world that has largely rejected God.

“We need to say to people, ‘Please, in God’s name, come back to Jesus!’” Fr. Luzindana insisted. “Don’t be afraid to give your children God. He is who gives us strength to withstand the winds and waves of this world.”

A time to celebrate

Fr. Luzindana is diocesan moderator for youth and young adult ministry and associate pastor of Cathedral of St. Joseph Parish in Jefferson City. He previously served as associate pastor of St. Thomas More Newman Center Parish in Columbia.

Ministering with him at the Fr. Tolton Celebration Mass was Deacon William Seibert, who assists the pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Jefferson City.

The St. Thomas More Newman Center Parish choir and ensemble led and accompanied the singing.

Debra Green and Marietta Monroe, members of St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbia, sang several songs in the African-American Gospel tradition. 

Students from Father Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia served as greeters and lectors for the Mass.

Jill McIntosh Weimer, Tolton Catholic’s vice president and director of advancement, also attended on the school’s behalf.

Avila Hendricks Nilon and Michele Sisson-White, co-organizers for the celebration, encouraged everyone to learn more about Fr. Tolton’s life and times, emulate his patience and spiritual tenacity, share his story with other people and pray for his saintly intercession in heaven.

Father Daniel Merz, pastor of St. Thomas More Newman Center Parish, also acknowledged the presence of Lonnie Tapia, art teacher at Tolton Catholic, who had recently restored the large crucifix above the Newman Center’s altar; and Tolton Catholic senior Nate Pfenenger, whose mosaic portrait of Fr. Tolton made of 20,400 black dice was on display in the Newman Center’s vestibule the day of the Mass.

The people joined together in praying the prayer for Fr. Tolton’s sainthood cause, composed by Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry, co-postulator for the cause.

Afterward, people gathered on the patio outside the chapel for cake and ice cream to celebrate the anniversaries of Fr. Tolton’s birth (April 1, 1854) and priestly ordination (April 24, 1886).

The Fr. Tolton Celebration Mass is an activity of what is now the Columbia chapter of the Fr. Tolton Associates.

The chapter, previously known as the Father Tolton Legacy Society, was established to help increase awareness of Fr. Tolton and the significance of his life.

More information about the six African American candidates for sainthood can be found at:

For information about Venerable Fr. Tolton’s cause, visit: