Dominic Genetti: Catholics want sainthood for America's first black priest
He’s been dead for 115 years. But his legacy lives on. His life was rough. But his story remains inspirational.
Father Augustine Tolton was the first African-American priest ordained into the Catholic Church in the United States, and many don’t know that it was in Missouri where he was born a slave but grew up to become a servant of God.
Johnson is best known for his career in education as the assistant principal at Veterans Elementary School in Hannibal, Mo., but when he’s not molding the minds of young students, he speaks in public and portrays famous African-Americans. Father Tolton is one of his most popular characters, but it’s probably one his most researched roles as well.
“There’s limited printed material on him. There’s a book, it’s called ‘From Slavery to Priesthood,’ which I draw heavily upon,” Johnson said. “I certainly can tell the facts, but I have to try to sense what (his life) felt like. Just to give people a glimpse of that man, I want, especially children to know, of the contributions that African-Americans have made.”
“He’s wonderful,” Holy Family Pastor Father Mike Quinn said. “He basically just kind of tells the story, reenacts Father Tolton. He really does a good job.”
The idea behind it all is, of course, to let his audience think they’re seeing the real man, but Johnson’s main drive behind his performance is telling Father Tolton’s story of life as a slave and as a Catholic priest during a hard time period for blacks.
Father Tolton’s early life
Father Tolton was born in 1854 in Brush Creek, Mo., a small community outside of Monroe City. He, along with his siblings and parents, were slaves ... until one day his mother had enough.
“At an early age, his mother (took the kids), escaped and made their way through Ralls County into Hannibal, where they got into a dilapidated boat, and she rowed across the Mississippi to Illinois, and then the story goes on to say that they met a group of workers who directed them to Quincy (Ill.) to a black community,” Johnson said.
“Once they arrived, they joined other black families that were attending St. Boniface Catholic Church. There were other black Catholics that the Toltons joined in the celebration of faith.”
The children had to grow up without their father. Before the family fled from Ralls County, the Tolton children’s father fled for St. Louis and attempted to join the union army. It’s unknown if he made it to St. Louis or if he even joined the union, but word did get back to Father Tolton’s mother that her husband had died. However, she kept his spirit alive for her children, often referring to him as a man of good intentions. This certainly had an affect on young Augustine, as he eventually lead a life of serving.
“He enjoyed hearing the gospel stories as told in the homily,” Johnson said. “He enjoyed going back to his community and telling those stories to the other kids that perhaps didn’t go to church or didn’t have any knowledge.”
Augustine grew up and officially became a priest in Rome. Like other blacks, he struggled in society because of his skin color. At times, he even had issues with fellow Catholics, including other priests, but Father Tolton didn’t give up. He served in the run-down areas of Chicago and made several efforts to get a church built for the blacks of his neighborhood. He lived most of his life in Quincy and, at one time, he almost went to Africa on mission, but was told to remain in Illinois.
“He was kind of like a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Quinn said. “Of course Father Tolton was years before that, before Dr. King, but in the face of intolerance, in the face of racism, in the face of rejection, in the face of being slandered and being maltreated, all those things, he did not fight back. He lived out what Christ called us to do, and you don’t fight evil with evil, you fight evil with good.”
Now, with Father Tolton’s work well known, the first African-American priest in the United States is a candidate to be canonized in the Catholic Church, which would eventually lead to sainthood. But that journey, like Tolton’s life, is also an up-hill battle.
“It’s a long process, but the biggest challenge is that there has to be some sort of declaration of a miracle being performed,” Johnson said, “either in his life — or there’s a prayer in Father Tolton’s memory and honor, and the thought, perhaps, is that if someone prays that prayer, and there isn’t an intervention and something occurs, that might be another way in which you could document a miracle having taken place.”
Putting the fact aside Father Tolton is the first black priest in the U.S., Johnson and Quinn agree titling him with sainthood would be very appropriate.
“I personally think he should. In what I’ve read and what I can maybe imagine or think of, I firmly believe he was anchored in his faith and it was his faith that caused him to overcome hundreds and hundreds of obstacles,” Johnson said. “I believe that he intervened in people’s lives and made them feel better in terms of who they were and what they were about. I would almost say that in those foul-smelling streets and neighborhoods in which he worked out of Chicago, that he himself prayed or prayed with others, and that there could have been some healing or some miraculous event. But there’s nobody around to document that.”
“He was magnanimous when others were not,” Quinn added. “He continued to have deep faith in the Lord despite rejection, even from sometimes people in his own church. Father Tolton was a good listener, he was a good preacher, he was a man that reflected God’s joy and God’s spirit of life, and he was a very intelligent man.”
Father Tolton died in 1897 at the age of 43.
“He goes away on a retreat,” Johnson said. “As he’s returning — temperature’s in the high 90s — he starts stumbling and staggering, and he falls. They take him to Mercy Hospital, his sister and his mom are praying over him, and he dies.”