Father Tolton

November 29, 2010

“Nothing will be impossible for God.” (Lk 1: 37) Last week in my “America’s Children” post, I talked about some of the real-time saints emerging among the youth in California, those brave kids who are up against tremendous forces.

Fr. Tolton overcame unthinkable adversity to be ordained as the country’s first African-American Catholic priest.

I am pleased to still be on “saint watch” this week as we witness an official saint-in-the-making from a little-known place in the U.S. called, Brush Creek, MO. The candidate for sainthood’s name is Fr. Augustine Tolton and St. Peter Church in Brush Creek is the place where he was baptized 156 years ago. Fr. Tolton was born into slavery and later overcame unthinkable adversity to be ordained as the country’s first African-American Catholic priest.  He attended St. Peter until he escaped to the free state of Illinois during the Civil War.  He wanted to become a priest, but was denied access to seminaries in the U.S. So he went to the Urban College in Rome, where he was ordained in 1886. He returned to the U.S. to serve and, despite rampant racism and discrimination, he became one of Chicago’s most popular pastors, attracting members of both white and black Catholic communities.   He shines as an example of what happens when Christians embrace this crazy idea that “nothing will be impossible for God.” As we wrap up Black Catholic History Month this November, we at Catholic Extension have announced a grant to the Diocese of Jefferson City, where the tiny town of Brush Creek is located.  We have pledged to help the diocese repair the humble site of Fr. Tolton’s baptism, a church accessible only via gravel road, to preserve the enormously important legacy of a heroic priest of the late 19th century who is now being considered for sainthood.  Pilgrims are beginning to visit this sacred place as more and more people become aware of the Fr. Tolton story through the Archdiocese of Chicago’s efforts to present his cause for canonization. Currently, St. Martin de Porres is the Catholic Church’s only “official” saint of African descent in the Western Hemisphere.  Fr. Tolton would be a welcome addition to that rank.  His story in so many ways represents the rich history of African-American Catholics, who in spite of many setbacks and struggles over the years have intrinsically shaped our Catholic religious experience in the U.S. and have made us a better, more complete Church. My own spiritual formation, in a very personal way, has been influenced by the Black Catholic perspective here in Chicago in parish not far from where Fr. Tolton once ministered a century ago.  For several years, I attended a church whose goal, which many parishioners could repeat verbatim, was  “to bring one more soul closer to Christ and to help somebody along the way.” For me, this sums up both the spiritual and the social dimensions of Christianity that African American Catholics intuitively understand and embody. Fr. Tolton’s story reminds us of the truth that is also at the heart of Catholic Extension’s work: the greatest among us emerge from the least-expected places. Our grant to St. Peter will enable the Diocese of Jefferson City to preserve the rich legacy of America’s first African-American priest, so that Fr. Tolton’s story can continue to be shared among Catholics and give hope to communities that face immense social and economic challenges today.” You can read more about Fr. Augustine Tolton’s life at : http://www.catholicextension.org/site/epage/108432_667.htm — Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management For more on Catholic Extension’s journeys, follow Joe on Twitter.

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