One hundred and thirty years ago today, His Eminence Giovanni Cardinal Parocchi, at the time Cardinal Vicar of the Diocese of Rome and former Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, ordained the Servant of God Augustus Tolton to the order of priests in the Lateran Archbasilica of Saint John. Liturgically, the day was Holy Saturday.
The former slave from Brush Creek, Missouri who grew up in my beloved hometown Quincy, Illinois was then thirty-two years old and had expected to be sent by the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith as a missionary to the continent of Africa.
Indeed, this was the intention of the Sacred Congregation and was known to then-Deacon Tolton. He had already written to Father Richardt, O.F.M., saying, "My seminary studies are about over now and I will go on to Africa right after my ordination in April."
Even on the eve of his ordination to the priesthood, as he took the Propaganda Oath and promised his obedience to the Sacred Congregation, he said to Cardinal Parocchi, "I know I am going to Africa, Your Eminence, but can you tell me to which diocese of province I will be assigned?" Africa, after all, is a rather large place.
The words with which Cardinal Parocchi answered him must have struck as a reminder of the admonition of the Apostles Peter and Paul, that "it is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22).
In his answer, Cardinal Parocci explained that the Sacred Congregation had altered its intentions and would not send Father Tolton to Africa:
It was our intention all along, Gus. Even in our last meeting most of the members thought that you would not go back to your diocese in America. It seems we have no contact with your American bishop. We all agreed that since you are the only priest of your race in that country, you would perhaps not succeed very well. Then just before the meeting closed Cardinal Simeoni had this idea: "America needs Negro priests. America has been called the most enlightened nation. We will see whether it deserves that honor. If the United States has never seen a Black priest it must see one now." Then we all felt that Cardinal Simeoni was right. Cone now, Gus, and sign the oath that you will spend the rest of your life in the United States of America, in the [Alton] Illinois diocese.Father Tolton celebrated his first Mass in the Basilica of St. Peter and then began his preparations to return to the United States of America.
He served in Quincy for three and a half years where he said "the white people here like me very much." Even so, the persecution and prejudice he suffered from Father Michael Weiss proved to much for him and, with the consent of the Sacred Congregation, he left Quincy for Chicago, where he served until his death in 1897. Father Gus always spoke well of Quincy and her citizen and desired to be buried in Quincy. His request was honored and know my fellow Quincyans and I, together with a great many of the faithful, pray for his beatification and canonization.
|Photograph taken 22 June 2015|
In his "Report for the Theological Commission in the Cause of Father Augustus Tolton," Father Martin Zielinski provides a brief summary of Father Gus' ministry and highlights the sanctity of this Servant of God:
By the time of his ordination in 1886 and return to his home in Quincy, he face new challenges. As the only African-American priest in the United States, he faced numerous questions as to his abilities, talents, and chances for success. At a time when racial prejudice, overt and subtle, was rampant in American society, Father Tolton began his priestly ministry with enthusiasm, energy, and dedication. Non-Catholics and African-American Protestants were suspicious of his efforts to educate their children and to evangelize that African-American community. Instead of finding support and encouragement from the fraternity of other priests, Father Tolton was harassed by Father Weiss in Quincy. Although Father Tolton's frustration with Father Weiss is evident in letters to Propaganda Fide and others, he never sought revenge. Father Tolton's patience was tested to the full during his years as a priest in Quincy. Never did Father Tolton question his decision to become a priest, or the importance of serving the African-American community. It is during these few years that his heroic qualities take on a new meaning.This afternoon I will visit the Lateran Basilica to give thanks to God for the gift of Father Gus' priesthood and tomorrow I will offer the Holy Mass in the Vatican Basilica to again express this same gratitude.
The transfer to the Archdiocese of Chicago opened a new door for Father Tolton's priestly ministry. Although race relations in Chicago were not better than in Quincy, Father Tolton served whoever sought his assistance. The steadiness in his fidelity to his priestly ministry clearly is evident in both Quincy and Chicago. He understood the demands being placed upon him as the only African-American priest in the United States of America. He would labor in the vineyards of the Lord as long as needed. Unfortunately, his labors were cut short in 1897.
In considering the life of Augustus Tolton, discouragement, disappointment, and dejection were possible at any number of points. These may have been his feelings and thoughts for brief moments in his life, but his fortitude, courage, perseverance, and strong faith were more notable. To have some understanding and appreciation of the social and cultural situation of African Americans in the United States of America from the mid-19th century to almost the start of the 20th is important in seeing the holiness of Augustus Tolton. Holiness was the undercurrent of his life in trying and challenging times.