JACKSON – Brother Gerard Jordan, O.Praem, presented the story of Father Augustus Tolton at Christ the King Parish Saturday, Nov. 8. Brother Jordan is traveling the country on behalf of Bishop Joseph Perry, of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Bishop Perry’s diocese is sponsoring Father Tolton’s sainthood cause.
The Office of Black Catholic Ministry brought the presentation to Jackson. In late September, the archdiocese sealed up all its research about Father Tolton’s life, evidence of two alleged miracles and countless favors into a formal packet to go to the Vatican for the next step, confirmation of the research and verification of the miracles. Part of this step in the journey is for advocates to travel the world, telling the story of Tolton, the first African American diocesan priest in the United States. “Rome has to hear from you,” said Brother Gerard. “You are the church. If you don’t want this to happen, it won’t,” he added.
Father Tolton’s story has all the drama and intrigue of a classic American adventure tale. Born into slavery at the cusp of the Civil War, Father Tolton’s brave mother ran away from her owners with her three tiny children in tow. When they were stopped at the Mississippi River by a group of Confederate soldiers, it looked like the group was doomed. A troop of Union soldiers stepped in. The two groups agreed they would put mother and children into a boat in the Mississippi River and it would be up to Martha Tolton to try and get to freedom on the other side.
“The boat was old, they only gave her one oar, the Mississippi River is huge and Martha Tolton had never rowed a boat in her life,” explained Brother Jordan. “When she was half way across the soldiers started shooting at them. (Tolton) said she never missed a beat. Can you imagine? Three babies and a mother who had never been in a boat,” Brother Jordan added. The family made it to shore and eventually settled in Quincy, Illinois.
The pastor in Quincy tried to put 14-year-old Tolton in the parish school, but the white families rose up against him. He was educated by nuns who agreed to tutor him separately. He had a similar experience when he tried to enter seminary. He and his pastor wrote letters to every seminary in the country, but none was ready to accept an African American.
In 1872 letters to the Vatican and help from numerous priests and faithful resulted in his admission to the Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide in Rome. He studied in Rome for six years, spending extra time studying African culture and languages since he assumed he would be sent to Africa as a missionary. He was ordained at Easter in 1886. The cardinal in charge of assignments sent Father Tolton back to Quincy, where hundreds came to his first Mass.
Father Tolton was assigned to St. Joseph Parish in Quincy. Although the parish was meant to serve the African American community, crowds of both white and black faithful came to hear Father Tolton. The pastor at the white parish, St. Boniface, complained to the bishop several times. Father Tolton, frustrated and upset, finally asked to be moved. He opened St. Monica Parish in a storefront in Chicago in 1891 and began raising money for a real structure.
Father Tolton would never see the church completed. He died during a heat wave in July 1897 at the age of 43. In his 11 years as a priest he had attended five gatherings of the Black Catholic Caucus. “Thousands lined the streets of Chicago when he died. Thousands more lined the train route when his body was sent back to Quincy,” said Brother Jordan.
How is it that Father Tolton was so famous at the time of his death, but now very few know his story? Brother Jordan said racism and a lack of promotion caused him to fade into the background, but that now is a critical time for Father Tolton.
“The work begins with you. You have got to tell the story,” he urged. Brother Jordan outlined four priorities for the faithful who wish to support Father Tolton’s cause. “The first and foremost is to pray, asking God to prove to the world that heaven and earth made a connection through the intercession of Father Tolton,” said Brother Jordan. “The second thing that needs to happen is catechesis,” he said. Brother Jordan also brought prayer cards and books for everyone, paid for by Father Ricardo Phipps, pastor of Christ the King. The third step is to tell the story, especially to children. Finally, said Brother Jordan, is to pay the cost for all the research and verification, currently at $264,000.
Brother Jordan closed by saying he has written a plan any parish or group can use to establish small groups who will pray together and share Father Tolton’s story. Father Phipps said he would like to establish a group at his parishes and will start spreading the word in the coming weeks.
Those who wish to learn more about Father Tolton can visit the website www.toltoncannonization.org.