Fr. Augustus Tolton, Servant of God

20_bannerWith yesterday being the memorial of Saint Katherine Drexel, who founded schools in the Southern United States for African Americans and in the West for Native Americans, and on the heels of Black History Month, it seems overdue to recognize that the Church is now in the early stages of considering the cause for sainthood of Father Augustus Tolton, the first African-American diocesan Catholic priest. Fr. Tolton would be the first African-American saint from the United States. Although an American, Fr. Tolton attended seminary and in 1886 was ordained in Rome, because, due to his race, no American seminary would accept him. Despite this exclusion, Fr. Tolton persevered through seminary and served in pious dedication to the Church and to the Lord.

Of course, Fr. Tolton would not be the first African heritage, Roman Catholic saint. The early Egyptian monastics and Saints Augustine and Monica precede him in the rolls of the African canonized to name just a few, as do Saints Victor I, Melchiades, and Gelasius, the first (189-199), second (311-314), and third (492-496) African Bishops of Rome. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the once-enslaved, biracial, Peruvian, Dominican patron of interracial relations, St. Martin de Porres (1579-1639), was canonized in 1962 and the Sudanese St. Josephine Bakhita (1849-1947), in 2001. However, since the Oriental Orthodox communion, that includes the Egyptian Coptic Church, the Eritrean, and the Ethiopian Churches, separated from Rome at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, African Orthodox saints have not been included automatically in the Roman canon. And in the West, beginning at least with the transatlantic slave trade in the fifteenth century, anti-black racism has undermined the identification in the Western context of heroic virtue in African heritage persons.

Yet, as the canonization last year of Saint Kateri Takewitha, the first Native American saint shows, church leadership is striving to overcome the damage that has been done in the Western Church by the social sins of cultural and institutional racism to the memory of the heroic virtues of persons of color.

We are nonetheless still faced with the challenge of overcoming racial dynamics in the American pews that might interfere with the consideration of cases like Fr. Tolton’s.

Bishop Joseph Perry, the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago and postulator of Fr. Tolton’s cause stated in a recent visit to South Bend, that, “In the end, the pope does not make saints, they come from the people,” and “What Rome needs to see is that the people want Tolton to be declared a saint.”

However, although the people as a whole must declare that they desire a person to be canonized, rather than speak to the large, majority Catholic population in South Bend at the Cathedral or at Notre Dame and thus widely publicize Fr. Tolton’s cause, Bishop Perry gave his presentation to the relatively small, but diverse, St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in South Bend that historically has been a spiritual refuge for local African-American Catholics.

The principle of subsidiarity might suggest that the smaller, ethnic, Catholic community should be addressed prior to the larger Catholic community as whole, and concerns and resentments about ongoing cultural inequalities might lead African-American Catholics to be hesitant to appeal to the majority Church population to legitimate an African-American saint. At the same time, white Americans are often inclined to consider racial identity an area in which they have no expertise, and thus avoid the challenging and contentious topic of race. This reluctance to speak about race might persist inside the American Church. Yet, saints do come from the people as a whole and we must speak with a unified voice.

Fr. Tolton would understand well the complexities of this dilemma, for he experienced the bite of the sin of racism within the Church.  While serving at his first assignment, a segregated, African-American parish in Quincy, when white parishioners began attending his masses (and even married at his parish), there was a backlash among some–most especially Fr. Weiss, a local pastor who had been placed in charge of the Quincy Deanery–and Fr. Weiss convinced the Bishop to put a stop to it.

[Fr. Tolton] was told to desist from luring white worshipers and he was told to minister to Negro people only or to go elsewhere.  While the other priests in Quincy sympathized with Augustus, there was little they could do.  Father Weiss publicly and repeatedly publicized Bishop Ryan’s mandate – that Father Tolton was to minister only to the Negroes.  In the meantime, Father Tolton continued to work tirelessly for the welfare of the disintegrating and impoverished parish.

Of course, Fr. Tolton himself also spoke of Catholicism’s unique strengths in crossing the color line and healing the wounds of slavery in speeches such as this:

The Catholic Church deplores a double slavery – that of the mind and that of the body.  She endeavors to free us of both. I was a poor slave boy but the priests of the Church did not disdain me.  It was through the influence of one of them that I became what I am tonight.  I must now give praise to that son of the Emerald Isle, Father Peter McGirr, pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Quincy, who promised me that I would be educated and who kept his word.  It was the priests of the Church who taught me to pray and to forgive my persecutors… it was through the direction of a Sister of Notre Dame, Sister Herlinde, that I learned to interpret the Ten Commandments; and then I also beheld for the first time the glimmering light of truth and the majesty of the Church.  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.”

How can we ensure that Catholics speak together to make saints in the love of the Eucharistic community across racial divisions?  How can we ensure the emergence of an integrated Church that, rather than a disintegrated one, properly embodies the flourishing spirit of Pentecost?

Perhaps, we should pray to Fr. Tolton for a vision of Church that shatters our man-made boundaries, that sees all of Christ’s children as Christ sees them, and that holds true to our wholly Catholic understanding of ONE Church, holy and Apostolic.

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