One hundred thirty-five years and one day after Venerable Father Augustus Tolton’s priestly ordination, about 40 people gathered for Sunday worship at the place where he received his priestly vocation.
Father Gregory Oligschlaeger, pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Monroe City and St. Stephen Parish in Indian Creek, presided at Mass in St. Peter Church in Brush Creek.
It stands where Fr. Tolton, a son of slaves, was baptized in 1854.
He grew up to become the Roman Catholic Church’s first recognizably Black priest in the United States.
“We celebrate and honor the pastor that he was,” Fr. Oligschlaeger stated in his homily. “His priestly calling started right here at his Baptism. God gave him the grace to do what He was calling him to do.”
The current St. Peter Church, built of stone, dates from 1862.
Peter Paul and Martha Jane Tolton brought their infant son to the previous St. Peter Church, constructed of planks, for baptism in 1854.
During the Civil War, Mr. Tolton escaped, enlisted in the Union Army and died before returning to his family.
Mrs. Tolton escaped to Illinois with her children, crossing the Mississippi River by boat under the threat of gunfire.
They remained Catholic. Young “Gus” worked in factories and attended St. Peter School in Quincy, Illinois.
He became a catechist at St. Joseph Mission Church for African-American Catholics in Quincy.
He grew into knowing that God was calling him to the Priesthood. His mother, his pastor, several School Sisters of Notre Dame and Franciscan friars helped him prepare for the rigors of priestly formation.
No U.S. seminary would accept him.
Fr. Tolton wound up studying in Rome as a member of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.
He was ordained to the Holy Priesthood in St. John Lateran Basilica on Holy Saturday in 1886.
Thinking he would serve overseas after ordination, he was sent back to the St. Joseph Mission in Quincy.
He ministered patiently and heroically there and then in Chicago, where he died of heatstroke in 1897, at age 43.
The Chicago archdiocese opened a sainthood cause for him in 2011.
Church authorities await a miracle from God through Fr. Tolton’s intercession in order to declare him blessed.
“We pray for the cause of Venerable Fr. Tolton, that his message of compassion and mercy may continue to spread as his cause continues to move toward beatification,” said Fr. Oligschlaeger.
As it was Good Shepherd Sunday and the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, Fr. Oligschlaeger asked everyone to be open to God’s vision for the Church, not just their own.
He encouraged them to pray for vocations to the Priesthood and religious life and to encourage young people to ask God for help knowing and answering His call for them.
People in the congregation spanned many decades. Some had traveled from as far as Macon, Shelbina, Columbia and Jonesburg.
Several spoke of their connections to old St. Peter Church — including a woman who used to mow the grass, a man who used to light the stoves in the winter, some who were baptized and received their First Holy Communion there, some who were united in marriage there, many who have relatives and ancestors at rest in the cemetery, and the man who lives on the farm where Fr. Tolton was born.
Seated in the front pew was Sister Loretta Keller, a Sparkill Dominican, who was baptized in the Brush Creek church and entered religious life from the former St. Peter Parish. She is living in retirement with Dominican Sister Susan Walker, principal of Holy Rosary School in Monroe City, who accompanied the singing at the Mass.
Others simply love the history of Fr. Tolton and are following his cause for sainthood.
Fr. Oligschlaeger noted that the former St. Peter Parish was founded as a mission of the former St. Paul Parish in Center.
The sacrament records for Brush Creek were kept in Center and were transferred to St. William Parish in Perry when the Center parish closed in the 1960s.
“That’s why Fr. Tolton’s baptismal record is at St. William instead of Holy Rosary,” said Fr. Oligschlaeger.
He noted that St. Peter Church and cemetery are due for some restoration.
Anyone who would like to contribute to the St. Peter Church roof and cemetery capital improvements may contact Holy Rosary Parish at 573-735-4718 or firstname.lastname@example.org.