There are around a dozen saints from the United States of America, but none so far is black. However, history is about to change as Pope Francis has made declarations that could bring about the canonization of the first African American priest, Father Augustine Tolton, otherwise, popularly known as Good Father Gus.
On the 10th of December, 2016, his remains were exhumed and authenticated by a forensic pathologist, to begin the canonization process, and after a five-year investigation in Chicago by the Church’s historical and theological commissions.
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Pope Francis approved a decree recognizing Tolton’s undaunted virtues, on June 12, 2019. This marks an integral part of the process of canonization. Tolton has now been granted the title “Venerable” which means Catholics can pray to him for intercession with God.
There are five African American Catholics who have been the subject of a campaign by African American Catholics, who believe that fostering their sainthood would clear the ideas of racism that seem to be stifling the American Catholic church, and Father Tolson is one of them.
The other four are; Pierre Toussaint, a former slave and New York City philanthropist, Julia Greeley, a former slave who distributed charity to the needy in Denver, Henriette Delille of New Orleans and Mary Elizabeth Lange of Baltimore who both founded religious orders.
Father Augustus Tolton, who was originally baptized Augustine Tolton in St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Brush Creek, was born on April 1, 1854, at Missouri.
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Both parents, Peter Paul Tolton and Martha Jane Chisley were enslaved to Stephen Elliott, a fervent Catholic who imposed his faith on his slaves. Tolton and his family gained freedom at the start of the American civil war, however, there are varying accounts of how they became free.
Father Tolton had told friends and parishioners that his father escaped and then joined the Union Army while his mother ran with him and his three siblings across the Mississippi River into the free state of Illinois with the help of Union soldiers, while descendants of the Elliott family say their ancestor freed all his slaves and permitted them to move to the North when the war broke out.
At Illinois, Tolton and his siblings worked at a tobacco company but also held onto their Catholic faith. Tolton was further drawn to the faith after he met Irish immigrant priest Father Peter McGirr who against all odds, gave him the opportunity to attend St. Peter’s parochial school, in spite of the racism at the time which had transcended to the parish as well.
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Father Peter McGirr would later sponsor Tolton to study in Rome where he graduated from St. Francis Solanus College (now Quincy University) after facing rejection from all the American seminaries he applied to. He became fluent in Latin, Greek, and the Italian language after furthering his studies at the Pontifical Urbaniana University.
At 31-year-old, in 1886, Tolton was ordained a priest in Rome, where he served his first Mass. Unfortunately, he couldn’t fulfill his dream of serving as a priest in Africa as he was assigned to serve the black community in the U.S.
Father Tolton had to deal with oppositions from white Catholics and black Protestants starting from his very first U.S. Mass at St. Boniface church in Quincy where he intended organizing a parish, a Catholic church, and school.
He would later be reassigned to Chicago where he grew a massive Negro national parish, and with funding from philanthropists Mrs. Anne O’Neill and Saint Katherine Drexel a new church was raised. This drew the attention of the national Catholic hierarchy.
He became a face on national dailies and had several articles written about his fluency, his sonorous singing voice as well as his impact in the establishment of several Negro Catholic churches in Chicago.
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Father Tolton came down with many illnesses and had to take a temporary leave of absence at the St. Monica’s Parish in 1895. He died at 43, a day after he collapsed on July 8, 1897, at the Mercy Hospital following a heat wave in Chicago that year. Just as he wished, Father Augustine Tolton was buried in the priests’ lot in St. Peter’s Cemetery in.
A 1973 biography “From Slave to Priest” was written in his honor by Sister Caroline Hemesath. He also has several educational institutions named after him.
Pierre Toussaint on June 30, 1853, passed on at the age of 87 and was also proclaimed Venerable by Pope John Paul II on December 17, 1997, for his notable service to his people and society. He has, however, not moved on to the next phase of canonization.
There are two other phases that both Tolton and Toussaint have to complete before they will be declared saints. These phases could take five years to a century to be completed.
To proceed to the next phase which is beatification, one miracle would have to be ascribed to them. And the final phase is when a second miracle is ascribed to them and verified by the Vatican.