Ex-slave who was first black priest in U.S. takes step to sainthood

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Wednesday that Tolton was the first Catholic priest “publicly known to be black” when he was ordained in 1886.

Ex-slave who was first black priest in U.S. takes step to sainthood

Augustine Tolton was born into slavery in Missouri in 1854, escaped to freedom as a child during the chaos of the Civil War, and later became the first African-American priest in the Roman Catholic Church.

This week, he took the first step toward becoming the church’s first African-American saint.

Pope Francis put Tolton on the path to sainthood Wednesday when he issued a decree “declaring the heroic virtues” of the priest, who was the only American on the list, which contained the names of eight candidates for sainthood.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Wednesday that Tolton was the first Catholic priest “publicly known to be black” when he was ordained in 1886.

Bishop Joseph Perry of the Archdiocese of Chicago called Tolton “a bright light in a difficult period of this nation’s history.”

“His life and ministry still speak to the problems of our day where communities, neighborhoods and churches continue to evidence separations among race and class and the disturbances that erupt periodically from these social contradictions,” Perry said in a statement. “Father Tolton is a model for priests and laity who live and work in these situations while they strive to work for harmony and peace among all regardless their color, their origin, their language.”

There are two more steps on the road to sainthood. If church investigators attribute a miracle to Tolton, he will be beatified and declared “blessed” by the pope. A second miracle would lead to his canonization, which would make him a saint.

Church officials are studying “at least one potential miracle” that may have been the result of Tolton’s “prayerful intercession,” the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois said Wednesday. The diocese said it and the Archdiocese of Chicago had spent 16 years advocating his sainthood.

Tolton was born in Brush Creek, Missouri, on a plantation owned by a white Catholic who had his slaves baptized and given religious instruction, according to a biography published online by the Diocese of Springfield.

He was named Augustine after the Christian theologian from Roman North Africa, he said later in life. As a child, Tolton fled across the Mississippi River one night in a row boat with his mother and two siblings as Confederate soldiers shot at them from the shore.

His family settled in Quincy, Illinois, where he attended an otherwise all-white Catholic school, the church said. No Catholic seminary in the United States at the time would admit a black man, so Tolton had to study in Rome when he decided to become a priest.

He did not think he would return to the United States and planned to work as a missionary in Africa, studying its history and languages. But after he was ordained in Rome at age 31, his plans were scrapped by Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni.

Simeoni sent Tolton back to Quincy. He wanted him to undertake missionary work of a different kind.

“America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world,” the cardinal said, according to the biography. “We shall see if it deserves that honor. If the United States has never before seen a black priest, it must see one now.”

Tolton spent three difficult years in Quincy. He faced racial hostility, including from a white priest in the parish who used racial slurs to refer to him and convinced the bishop to bar him from ministering to white people.

He was later transferred to Chicago, where he ministered to the poor and built the community at St. Monica’s Catholic Church, which served African Americans in the city. He died of heat stroke in 1897, the church said. He was 43.

Tolton was buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Quincy, in the Diocese of Springfield, which said Wednesday that it was considering erecting a shrine to him.

“Father Tolton overcame the odds of slavery, prejudice and racism, to become a humble priest and someone we should model our lives after,” said Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield. “What a source of great pride to have the nation’s first black priest and someone who is on his way to sainthood, live and minister in our diocese.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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