The holy life of Fr. Augustus Tolton

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A seminarian from the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., was lifting weights one day when he collapsed on the ground. He lost oxygen to his brain for more than 20 minutes and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors feared the young man would never regain consciousness. From miles away, the cardinal and bishops from the Archdiocese of Chicago heard about the seminarian's plight. From the gravesite of Father Augustus Tolton, the first known black Catholic priest in the United States, they lifted the seminarian up in prayer. At that moment, he suddenly woke up from his hospital bed. The first words from his mouth were, "Can I still be a priest?"

Though still unverified by Rome, the miracle of the seminarian (now a priest) could help propel Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton further along the road to sainthood. On Nov. 21, black Catholics from around the diocese gathered at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Vienna to learn more about the priest's life from the postulator for the cause of his canonization, Chicago Bishop Joseph Perry.

Though Father Tolton is a notable first in American black Catholic history, his legacy is much bigger than that, said Bishop Perry. "The church is not interested in celebrities or historical figures. The church is only interested in men and women who took Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and made it the constitution of their lives," he said. "Tolton did not give back to anyone the hatred he experienced, but came out with his faith and hope and love intact."

Augustus Tolton was born into a slave family in Missouri on April 1, 1854. His master's family was Catholic, so both he and his family were baptized in the faith. When the master died, Tolton's mother, Martha Jane, feared they would be sold, so she took the children and ran away. Though chased by Confederate troops, Martha Jane and her three children eventually made it to safety in Quincy, Ill. However they still faced discrimination. Tolton was dismissed from every school in the area until an Irish Catholic priest named Father Peter McGill took the family under his wing at St. Peter Parish and School.

Soon Tolton's piety and intelligence were recognized, and the men and women religious who taught him believed he had a vocation to the priesthood. Despite this, due to his skin color not a single seminary in the United States would accept him. Eventually, the Franciscan Fathers arranged for Tolton to study at a seminary for missionaries in Rome. When he finished his studies he was sent back to evangelize in his hometown. He served as the pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Quincy, where both whites and blacks were attracted to his preaching. However pressure from inside and outside the church compelled him to move to a mission parish for black Catholics in Chicago. In 1897, at the age of 43, Tolton died of heatstroke after a devastating heatwave hit the city.

Throughout the years, the life of Father Tolton has inspired countless black Catholics, especially priests like himself, said Bishop Perry. Just as Tolton's life is a virtuous example for all, it is also an emblem of the African-American struggle in the United States, he said.

"We do not know why God allowed our period of slavery and degradation. Somehow, God allows that to be the story through which He has come to love us and to embrace us. A lot of our people reject that ... (But) if African-American Catholics or Christians are going to understand who Jesus is, they have to understand (the Crucifixion) and how our story is enveloped within that. What in God's design did this have to do with His love for us? It has something to do with His love for His own Son. And that's why I think Tolton's a saint," said Bishop Perry.

Several of the participants of the black Catholic day of reflection witnessed the discrimination against blacks in the church, as well as the overcoming of prejudice. Cecilia Braveboy, one of the speakers, was just a child in 1945 when 16 black Catholics founded Our Lady, Queen of Peace in Arlington, her parish since birth, she said. Before that, black Catholics would travel, often by foot, to St. Joseph Church in Alexandria, or, like Braveboy's parents, to St. Augustine Church in Washington.

As a student at St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, Braveboy desegregated the Girl Scout troop. She also was one of the first blacks to attend Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington. Over the years, it's been her mission and passion to give black Catholics a sense of belonging in the church, she said.

In that spirit of inclusion, and in the spirit of Father Tolton's life, the theme of the annual black Catholic day of reflection was "Watering the Garden, Growing Vocations in the Black Catholic Family." Father Scott Woods, from the Archdiocese of Washington, spoke on vocations to the priesthood. Eugene Poole and his wife, Freddie Mae Poole, spoke of the vocation to the married life and on parents as the nurturers of religious vocations. Men and women from traditionally African American orders, such as the Josephites, were present to share their stories.

Corinne Monogue, director of the Office of Multicultural Ministries, hopes that each of the day's participants will pray for Tolton's cause, but also be inspired by his vocation. "My hope is this day of reflection will plant the seeds in many families and individuals of their own vocations, and that they can foster and develop in others the promotion of vocational awareness, not only among black Catholics in our diocese, but in all that they encounter," she said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015