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A boy in shabby work clothes looks up at the priest he dares to hope to become.
The cleric, lofty of stature and vested for Mass, holds up the Word of God and a tattered remnant of his childhood.
They are the same person, separated by time: Venerable Father Augustus Tolton.
“They’re in two different worlds,” said Lonnie Carlos Tapia, an art teacher at Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia, who painted the image to help commemorate the school’s 10th anniversary.
Father Paul Clark, a chaplain at Tolton Catholic, blessed and dedicated the large painting at a ceremony with students, administrators and friends on May 14.
Assisting him were Father Michael Coleman, who is also a chaplain at the school, and Deacon William Seibert of Jefferson City.
The image honors the school’s namesake, who was born into a family of slaves in northeastern Missouri, escaped with his mother and siblings to Illinois during the Civil War, and overcame tremendous obstacles toward answering his call to Priesthood.
Ordained in Rome and missioned back to the United States in 1886, Fr. Tolton (1854-97) became the first recognizably Black priest of the Roman Catholic Church in this country.
“It has really been a privilege for me to be a part of doing this for ‘Fr. Gus,’ who has become my mentor, my guide, my moral compass,” Mr. Tapia told the assembly. “And I hope that in the future, he becomes more of that for you.”
Mr. Tapia titled the image, “The Light that Guides the Faithful.”
That light is depicted as sunlight through the distinctive circular window of the school’s chapel, which is adorned with a large crucifix.
It points to a phrase from a prayer by Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago, co-postulator of Fr. Tolton’s sainthood cause: “Father Tolton’s suffering service sheds light upon our sorrows; we see them through the prism of Your Son’s passion and death.”
Shades of blue and gold, the school’s colors, accent the painting.
The boy dressed as a slave of men stands on a hay-strewn floor of a barn like the one he and his family likely hid in while making their escape.
The priest, dressed as a slave of Christ, is wearing a fiddle-back vestment over a faded, somewhat oversized cassock.
Even his Bible is simple and common — a black-bound book with no embellishment.
“Nothing about him was going to be ornate,” the artist insisted. “He took pride in not having the opulence.”
Mr. Tapia set out to highlight the eternal beauty of Fr. Tolton’s priestly vocation and the worldly imperfection that made carrying it out a constant challenge for him.
“I wanted him to be beautiful,” the artist stated at the dedication ceremony. “My whole goal was for people to think of Fr. Tolton, the man, whenever they hear his name.
“Hopefully when you speak of Fr. Tolton, with that warm tone with which you speak of our school, you will think of this image of that man who represents us,” he said.
“Think about him and the day he was born,” Mr. Tapia continued. “Think about his life, his trials and tribulations. And I do hope that he will become that moral compass for all of us.”
“Light of Christ”
Mr. Tapia is eager for the painting to be widely reproduced and distributed across numerous platforms throughout the world.
“And our school, our chapel and our colors are part of it,” he said. “You, us, our school, all of you, will be a part of this. Hopefully you’ll take pride in that and love him as much as I love Fr. Tolton, the man, Fr. Gus.”
He pointed out how the floor on which the priest is standing approximates the planks of the old St. Peter Church in Brush Creek, where Fr. Tolton was baptized and began to learn about God.
The boy on the barn side is holding the cloth sack in which he would carry apples and biscuits out to work in the fields each day.
The priest is holding a piece of that same sack in his same hand as the Bible. Fr. Tolton never forgot where he came from.
A blue dove represents the Holy Spirit inspiring Fr. Tolton, giving him power to minister in the name of Christ and in His place at the altar.
“The power of Christ, the grace of Christ, the light of Christ, they are all represented here,” said Mr. Tapia.
Even the frame, which the artist also created, is symbolic.
“The walnut comes from Northern Missouri, very close to Brush Creek, where Fr. Tolton had his childhood,” said Mr. Tapia. “I capped it with zebra wood, which comes from East Africa. It represents black and white and the converging of it.”
True to the rest of the image, the frame lacks ornamentation.
Tolton Catholic’s graduating Class of 2021 donated the money for the bronze plaque that hangs beside the painting in the Commons, a large and heavily traveled section of the school, next to the chapel.
“You’ll get to see this every day,” said Dr. Daniel Everett, president of Tolton Catholic.
“Footsteps of the Lord”
Fr. Clark gently blessed the painting with holy water.
“When we bless something in the Church, it’s to consecrate it, to set it apart for a particular purpose,” he said.
He pointed out that when the Church blesses a picture of statue for public veneration by the faithful, it does so for several reasons:
“That when we look at the representation of those who have followed Christ faithfully, we will be motivated to seek the city that is to come,” he said.
“That we will learn the way that will enable us most surely to attain complete union with Christ,” he continued, “that as we struggle along with our earthly cares, we will be mindful of the saints, those friends and coheirs of Christ, who are also our own brothers and sisters and our own special benefactors, that we will remember how they love us, intercede ceaselessly for us and are near us and are joined to us in a marvelous communion.”
Fr. Clark praised God the Father for sending His Son, Jesus, the author and perfecter of all holiness, into this imperfect world.
God sent the Holy Spirit to sustain His newborn Church, to give knowledge, wisdom, strength and ardor.
“Today, we praise You for the gifts of the Spirit bestowed upon Fr. Tolton, in whose honor we dedicate this image,” Fr. Clark prayed. “May we follow in the footsteps of the Lord, keeping before us the example of Fr. Tolton and grow to a maturity measured not by nature but by the fullness of Christ.”
Fr. Coleman then took the holy water and sprinkled some on everyone present as a reminder of their baptism.
Deacon Seibert, who is African American, proclaimed a Scripture reading from Matthew 5, known as the Beatitudes, including: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Deacon Seibert recently preached the homily during a Mass in Columbia for the Fr. Tolton Legacy Society.
“When institutions bear his name, you must honor him, knowing he was a man of charity, a follower of Jesus, a lover of God,” the deacon said in that homily.
Thirty-four years ago, Fr. Coleman baptized Fr. Clark as an infant while serving as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Edina.
He did so in St. Joseph Church, the place in which Venerable Fr. Tolton gave a parish mission on the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Husband of Mary, in 1889.
Now, Fr. Coleman and Fr. Clark minister at a school named for Fr. Tolton.
“Everything comes full circle,” said Fr. Clark.