Chicago Catholic

October 5 - 18, 2014

Father Tolton’s cause is headed to the Vatican

By Michelle Martin

Staff Writer

Dossiers for the canonization cause of Father Augustus Tolton sit on a table in front of the altar at the St. James Chapel on Sept. 29. Cardinal George presided over a prayer service where the dossier was sealed The record of the case will now be dispatched to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, postulator for Tolton’s cause, speaks to the congregation in the chapel of the Archbishop Quigley Center in Chicago on Sept. 29. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Father Roy Bauer (left), retired pastor of St. Peter Parish in Quincy, Illinois, and author of "They Called Him Father Gus," sits next to Father Michael Penn, a priest from the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, during the prayer service. Tolton was born in Missouri and raised and ministered in Quincy. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Bishop Perry told the congregation that research into Tolton’s life proves that we probably had a saint among us and didn’t even know it. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Father Michael Hack, a judge on the Metropolitan Tribunal, assists Cardinal George in signing the final documents in the dossier on Sept. 29. The dossier was dispatched to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Oblate Father William Woestman, archdiocesan promoter of justice (left), and Father Michael Hack, a judge on the Metropolitan Tribunal, also signed the documents. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Patricia Rimkus, archdiocesan notary, Hack and Bishop Perry add their signatures to the documents on Sept. 29. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Cardinal George presses the archdiocesan seal in wax after he signed the final documents in the dossier for the cause for canonization for Father Augustus Tolton. The signing took place during a prayer service in St. James Chapel at the Archbishop Quigley Center in Chicago on Sept. 29. The dossier was dispatched to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Rimkus assists Bishop Joseph Perry, postulator for the cause, in sealing up the dossier. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Nathaniel and Maridel Moffett, members of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, sing the final hymn at the prayer service. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

With prayers and songs and sealing wax, Cardinal George formally closed the investigation into the life and virtues of Father Augustus Tolton Sept. 29 in a ceremony in the St. James Chapel at the Archbishop Quigley Center.

The prayer service marked the binding and sealing of the dossier — local research aimed at making Tolton, the first acknowledged African-American priest, a saint. Cardinal George opened the cause in 2010.

Now the cause for Tolton’s canonization moves to the Holy See, where the documents collected by supporters of his cause in the Archdiocese of Chicago will be analyzed, bound into a book called a “positio” and evaluated by theologians, and then, supporters hope, passed on to the pope, who can declare Tolton “venerable” if the pope determines he led a life of heroic virtue.

‘A saint among us’

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, the postulator of the cause, said the collected evidence — which includes everything from newspaper articles to correspondence to eyewitness testimonies — certainly indicates that is the case.

“Everything in the record of the case demonstrates that we had a saint among us and we hardly noticed,” Bishop Perry said. “Father Tolton leaves behind a shining example of perseverance.”

Tolton was born a slave in 1854 on a plantation near Brush Creek, Missouri. His father left to try to join the Union Army during the Civil War. In 1862, Tolton’s mother escaped with her three children by rowing them across the Mississippi River and settling in Quincy, Illinois.

Tolton had to leave one Catholic school because they and parochial leaders were threatened and harassed because of his race; he found a haven at St. Peter parish and school, where he learned to read and write and was confirmed at age 16.

He was encouraged to discern his vocation to the priesthood by the Franciscan priests who taught him at St. Francis College, now Quincy University, but could not find a seminary in the United States that would accept him. He eventually studied in Rome and was ordained for the Propaganda Fidei in 1886, expecting to become a missionary in Africa. Instead, he was sent back to Quincy, where he served for three years before coming to the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1889.

He spearheaded the building of St. Monica Church for black Catholics, dedicated in 1894, and died after suffering heat stroke on a Chicago street on July 9, 1897.

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, which includes Quincy, attended the ceremony, as did representatives of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, which includes Brush Creek.

Holy priests

Cardinal George, who plans to retire when his successor, Archbishop Blase Cupich is installed Nov. 18, called the opening of Tolton’s cause one of the most important, if not the most important, thing he has done in his more than 17 years as archbishop of Chicago.

“The church, over the centuries, has ordained many priests, most of them quite holy in some ways, some in great ways,” he said.

Tolton was one such holy priest, who “devoted himself to his people, quietly and in his own way,” he said, despite great difficulties and setbacks.

“Virtue has consequences, and virtue is stronger than evil,” Cardinal George said. “History is what God remembers. The rest passes.”

During the ceremony, Bishop Perry thanked members of the Father Tolton Guild, who are working to move the cause forward; members of the historical commission, who examined the records of his life; and members of the theological commission, who examined his writings to make sure that they are free of doctrinal error.

Neither commission found any reason for holding the cause back.

“Father Tolton demonstrated himself to be humble yet courageous, faithful to his priestly vows, welcoming to both black and white,” Bishop Perry said.

If the pope declares that Tolton indeed led a life of historic Christian virtue and is to be called venerable, Bishop Perry said, the next step is to look for evidence of Tolton’s intercession in the form of a miracle. The dossier sealed Sept. 29 includes letters already written to Cardinal George telling of favors granted after praying for Tolton’s intercession, Perry said.

If a miracle is found, then Tolton could be beatified, or declared “blessed.” If another miracle due to his intercession is found after he is beatified, he could be canonized and officially recognized as a saint.

Spreading the word

Andrew Lyke, director of the archdiocese’s Office for Black Catholics and a member of the Father Tolton Guild, said he will continue working to spread the word about the cause. His office and the Augustus Tolton Pastoral Ministry Program at Catholic Theological Union sponsor pilgrimages to sites significant in Tolton’s life and ministry, both in Missouri and Quincy and in Chicago, and the guild encourages everyone to pray for Tolton’s intercession for whatever their needs are.

At the moment, Tolton is among four African-American Catholics who have open causes for sainthood, Lyke said, and his office tries to draw attention to all four. The others are Venerable Henriette DeLille, foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans; Mary Elizabeth Lange, foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence; and Venerable Pierre Toussaint, who was brought to New York as a slave and later became a well-known philanthropist.

“But of course I have a special place in my heart for Father Tolton,” Lyke said. “He has always been an inspirational historical figure, but I feel much closer to him spiritually since I’ve been praying to him every day.”

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