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Missouri cathedral featuring Ven. Augustus Tolton reopening on Thursday

The nation's first openly Black Catholic priest is featured in stained glass and a painted mural in the newly renovated Jefferson City cathedral.

Stained glass depicting Venerable Augustus Tolton at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City, Missouri. (Marianne Cline/Twitter)

A weekend of events will celebrate the reopening of the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City, which now features prominent sacred artwork depicting Venerable Augustus Tolton, a Black Catholic sainthood candidate born in northeastern Missouri in 1854.

The church’s $15 million renovation will culminate in a rededication ceremony with Bishop W. Shawn McKnight on Friday, May 5, following a candlelight youth vigil on Thursday night.

The prelate noted last fall that space near the cathedral’s sanctuary is reserved for a Tolton shrine, should he be beatified. In the meantime, a large window designed by Associated Crafts & Willet Hauser Architectural Glass depicts the historic Black priest’s baptism (which took place in Ralls County, Missouri), ordination, and first Solemn Mass.

It is the first stained-glass rendering of Tolton in any Catholic cathedral in the world.

“The day following his ordination, Fr Tolton would celebrate his first Mass on Easter Morning beneath the Vatican dove at St. Peter’s Basilica,” said Willet Hauser artisan Mark Bleakley in an interview with The Catholic Missourian.

“His whole life would be a living testimony to the Holy Spirit working through him,” Mr. Bleakley observes.

Tolton, ordained on April 24, 1886, was the first openly African-American Catholic priest in history, having been raised to the priesthood in Rome after facing rejection from U.S. seminarians due to his race. He was one of only five known African-American Catholics ordained in the 19th century.

Tolton was born into slavery and baptized as a Catholic at St. Peter’s Catholic Church near Monroe City. After his family gained their freedom, Tolton attended St. Francis Solanus College (now Quincy University) before matriculating to the Pontifical Urban University in 1880. He expected to become a missionary in Africa upon ordination, but Vatican officials instead assigned him back to Illinois, where his family fled during the Civil War.

After experiencing several years of success as well as continued racism in his hometown, Tolton received a transfer to the Archdiocese of Chicago, where he founded the city’s first Black parish (St. Monica Catholic Church) and ministered until his death in 1893 from a heat stroke.

Tolton's cause for canonization was opened by Cardinal Francis George, OMI, in 2010 and he was declared Venerable by Pope Francis in 2019. His sainthood cause is being sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago.

The Diocese of Jefferson City, which is co-sponsoring the cause alongside the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, previously honored Tolton’s legacy with the opening of Father Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia in 2011.

The cathedral’s stained glass work will mark the small Missouri diocese’s latest acknowledgment of his significance, accompanied by a life-size baptistery mural featuring Tolton and other clergymen pulling a symbolic fishing net in the Missouri River.

“The idea is to visually enculturate the universal call to Baptism within the Diocese of Jefferson City,” explained the artist, Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs, to The Catholic Missourian.

“To show how Christ’s call to baptize all nations (Matthew 28:19) is also a call to Baptism for the people of this particular place.”

Friday’s rite of rededication will take place in the cathedral at 10:30am CT, and seating is by invitation only. The ceremony will be livestreamed on the Diocese of Jefferson City website. Thursday’s Solemn Vespers will be livestreamed at 6:30pm. RSVPs for in-person attendees are welcome.

The cathedral will also host an open house on Sunday, May 7, from 1 to 4pm. More information on the renovation can be found at

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.

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