“In this Church, we do not have to fight for our rights because we are black. She had colored saints: Augustine, Benedict the Moor, Monica. The Church is broad and liberal. She is the Church for our people.”
Father Augustine Tolton, the first African-American priest, delivered these words at the First Black Catholic Congress in Washington, D.C., in 1889.
The words are as relevant today as they were then, said the presenters of a Zoom session the Diocese hosted July 31 to promote Venerable Tolton’s cause for canonization and a film about his life and legacy.
The virtual event, sponsored by the Diocesan Office of Multicultural Ministries, began with a screening of the short film “Across,” which illustrates his early life as a slave and his family’s harrowing escape to freedom. Following the movie, writer/director Christopher Foley and Bishop Joseph Perry, postulator of the cause for the canonization, offered a presentation about his childhood, seminary experience and priesthood.
Where “Across” ends with the Tolton family’s incredible escape, the presentation delved into his adult life.
Augustine Tolton studied as a seminarian in Rome, due to the rejection of seminaries in the United States based on the color of his skin. Ordained in 1886 and assigned first as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Quincy, Ill., and later to St. Monica’s in Chicago, Father Tolton was beloved by parishioners, many of whom lived in poverty and lacked education.
Yet, he was again met with hostility, including from white priests.
“Racism wasn’t just in the south,” Foley said. “This is why I think Tolton’s story is a key one to tell today. He was a man of peace, and did not return hatred for hatred. His goal was to save souls, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to do that with hatred.”
In Chicago, Father Tolton led the development and construction of St. Monica’s Catholic Church in Chicago as a black “National Parish Church.” He died before he could finish the church, succumbing to heat stroke on July 8, 1897. He was 43.
On February 24, 2011, the Church officially began the formal introduction of the cause for Father Tolton’s sainthood. On June 12, 2019, Pope Francis authorized the promulgation of a “Decree of Heroic Virtue,” advancing the cause of Servant of God Augustine Tolton and granting him the title “Venerable.” The next stage in the cause would be beatification, prior to canonization.
Bishop Perry remarked that Father Tolton “certainly is a patron saint for our times and obviously an inspiration for the social unrest that presently has captured our nation. I think he would see that much has changed, but at the same time there is a lot going on that seems to echo some of his experiences. I believe the film can do much to advance his cause, and do much by way of evangelization for the Church.”
Mary King-Linares of St. Joseph Parish in Lancaster, said she registered for the movie screening and presentation because she was “very interested in seeing how they would portray the life of Father Tolton.”
“Being privileged to have Blessed Sacrament Sisters for teachers, I was familiar with him and eager to see how his story would be shared,” she said. “I believe the film is timely. I would like to see more on the rest of his life, including how he had to go to Rome to study for the priesthood due to racism in the United States.”
Mary Catherine Smith, of St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Greencastle, said she first learned of Father Tolton after reading a biography that a priest had shared with her.
“The film was powerful and kept me on the edge of my seat. It felt like we were very present with watching what he and the family were going through and enduring,” she said. “It is never easy seeing individuals suffer at the hands of others or even enduring personally. The film reminded me to pray for his intercessions to help end racism and hatred.”
“The compelling portrayal revealed his steadfastness in prayer to get through difficulties, challenges and obstacles. His love for God helped him to persevere through those difficult moments. That resonated with me,” Smith said.
She said the film and presentation offered lessons on perseverance.
“Augustine had a tremendous amount of trust in God. God saw a priest in (young) Gus Tolton, and even though he was persecuted and rejected severely, God led him to those who would eventually accept him,” she remarked. “Sufferings didn’t go away even after he became a priest, but he still kept his faith in God.”
As Venerable Tolton’s cause of canonization continues and plans remain for a full-length feature film, Foley hopes the story of the priest’s life and legacy endure.
“Father Tolton’s legacy is unfinished,” he remarked. “He is very much remembered in the black community, and now his story is starting to gain a wider audience since being named Venerable last year. His philosophy was that the best place for all people was the Catholic Church. He wanted to see other blacks convert to Catholicism, but that still has not come to fruition. Less than 5% of African Americans are Catholic. One of the reasons I want to complete this movie and why we want to see him canonized is that he’ll be lifted as a beacon to the black community.”
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness