The St. Thomas More Newman Center Chapel’s windows depict the waters of heaven and earth, separated at Creation and reunited through Baptism.
Those same waters freed Venerable Father Augustus Tolton from servitude long before he and his family crossed the Mississippi River to escape slavery in Missouri.
“You may hold the body in bondage, you might stop the body with hate, but you can’t contain the spirit,” Deacon William Seibert proclaimed from the Newman Center pulpit.
Deacon Seibert, who assists the pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Jefferson City, preached the homily during the Father Augustus Tolton Legacy Society’s 2021 Mass on April 18.
The annual Mass celebrates the April anniversaries of Fr. Tolton’s birth and baptism in Brush Creek in 1854 and his priestly ordination in Rome in 1886.
Fr. Tolton was the Roman Catholic Church’s first noticeably Black priest in the United States.
That distinction came at a great cost.
“His life is a story of manmade obstacles, manmade confusion, manmade rejection, much of it under the guise of the Catholic faith,” Deacon Seibert, who is African American, noted.
But God used Fr. Tolton and his circumstances to teach a great lesson about what it means to be truly Catholic.
“He was the epitome of what the Catholic Church should be: all-inviting, all-encompassing, a chance for all, no matter their background,” said Deacon Seibert.
“When you claim to be the Universal Church, you can’t pick and choose and come up with your own interpretations of Universal,” he added.
Presiding at the Mass was Father Paul Clark, associate pastor of St. Thomas More Newman Center Parish and a chaplain at Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia.
Students from Tolton Catholic proclaimed the readings and served as greeters.
Deacon Seibert reminded everyone that great responsibility comes with honoring and celebrating Fr. Tolton.
“When institutions bear his name, you must honor him, knowing he was a man of charity, a follower of Jesus, a lover of God,” said Deacon Seibert.
God said ‘yes’
While studying in Rome, Fr. Tolton thought he would be sent to Africa as a missionary. But shortly before ordination, he found out he would be missioned back to Quincy, Illinois, where he had grown up.
Some people there had hated him and tried to keep him out of their school.
But others had recognized God’s light in him and actively helped him pursue knowledge, holiness and Priesthood.
It was quite a homecoming.
“I can’t begin to imagine the thoughts when this man of rich beautiful blackness, made in the image of God his creator, first showed up to serve in a white community,” said Deacon Seibert.
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.
Many Black Protestants and many white Catholics alike came to see him as a threat.
He continued to minister with grace and weathered many difficulties before eventually being reassigned to Chicago.
There, 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.
He never stopped loving his faith and the Church. He held onto his welcoming heart to the end.
The cause for declaring him a saint is well under way, and devotion to his memory continues to spread.
“Fr. Tolton is bigger than the racism that encompassed most if not all of his life,” Deacon Seibert declared. “He had a vision to defeat and overcome the segregation that we still find in our communities and especially in our churches.”
Namely, he stayed focused on Christ and on doing what God wanted him to do.
“Fr. Tolton knew Jesus was hated first, so his own spirit, his own light couldn’t be extinguished,” said Deacon Seibert. “Man told Fr. Tolton, ‘no,’ but God told Fr. Tolton, ‘yes!’”
Accordingly, Fr. Tolton embodied the Easter joy of the disciples who beheld Jesus’s risen body, wounds and all.
“Believers know that Jesus moves us in ways that we can’t explain,” said Deacon Seibert. “Jesus is risen and came amongst us because there is continued work to be done.”
Before, during and after the Mass, Carlot Dorvé rendered joyful anthems of the Baroque and Classical traditions on the flugelhorn.
This was the fifth annual Fr. Tolton Legacy Mass at the Newman Center.
The Fr. Tolton Legacy Society’s purpose is to increase awareness of Fr. Tolton and the significance of his life.
Society co-chair Michelle Sisson-White urged everyone to take Deacon Seibert’s words to heart, answering the world’s negativity with truth, faith and a singular focus on Christ.
“Let them truly see that we are God’s sons and daughters, and that we hold what He did in our hearts and in our spirits,” she said.