On Sunday afternoon in Illinois, the faithful of the Diocese of Springfield will march in an annual procession honoring the feast of Venerable Augustus Tolton, who died on this day 126 years ago in Chicago. He was the first openly Black Catholic priest in the United States.
The mile-long pilgrimage will run from a statue of Tolton at his childhood parish of St. Peter Catholic Church in Quincy, to the city’s St. Peter Catholic Cemetery, where Tolton was buried in 1897.
“Father Tolton was born into slavery in 1854. In 1862, he, his mother and siblings made a daring escape across the Mississippi River to Illinois. After settling in Quincy, he went to school at St. Peter’s Catholic School,” the diocese shared in The Catholic Times last month, announcing the event.
“He later went to seminary in Rome because no American seminary would accept a black man.”
A native of Missouri, Tolton was ordained in 1886 at the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran, before being sent back stateside to minister in his the Diocese of Alton (now Springfield), where he was raised after his family fled during the Civil War. He was one of only five known African-American Catholics ordained in the 19th century, and the first to avoid concealing his race.
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 at age 43.
His cause for canonization was opened by Cardinal Francis George, OMI of Chicago in 2010 and Tolton was declared “Venerable” by Pope Francis in 2019. His sainthood cause is being led by the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Catholics in the Diocese of Springfield, which is co-sponsoring the cause alongside Missouri's Diocese of Jefferson City, have since made several efforts to more prominently honor Tolton, including a 125th feast day Mass last year at his alma mater of Quincy University.
A memorial wall depicting major events in Tolton’s life on stone plaques was installed at St. Peter’s in 2021, and a large statue of him was reinstalled near the new Fr Tolton Garden outside the church that November.
Long before the opening of Tolton’s sainthood cause, a commemorative marker was installed downtown in 1974 by the historical societies of Quincy and Illinois at the former St. Boniface Church—where Tolton was first driven out of Catholic school as a child and later celebrated his first hometown Mass.
The annual Tolton procession has previously drawn roughly a hundred local Catholics, and local devotee Fr Daren Zehnle will officiate this year’s event, beginning at St. Peter’s at 4pm CT. Those who do not walk in the procession can meet the group at the gravesite, where water and chairs will be provided. Evening Prayer will be conducted there at 4:30pm CT with an address from Fr Tom Meyer, followed by prayers for Tolton’s canonization. As in previous years, the event will conclude with the singing of “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” Tolton’s favorite hymn.
Tolton’s cause, now in its “Roman phase,” currently awaits a miracle confirmed by the Vatican, which would open the path for the pope to announce his beatification. It would be a first for an African American in the Catholic Church, and official investigators from the Holy See related to the cause were reported to be in the United States as recently as April 2022.
Those interested in more information on Sunday’s pilgrimage can contact Fr Zehnle at (217) 321-1109 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.