He was born nine years before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. He walked and rowed a boat to his freedom as a young child. Every place he reached out to in the United States in the hopes of becoming a priest said, “NO.”
Yet his faith never wavered; his commitment never broken.
On Easter Sunday, 1886, Augustus Tolton became the first African-American Roman Catholic priest when he was ordained in the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome.
Now, almost 119 years after his death a movement is gaining strength across the country to canonize him as the first African-American saint.
In the Diocese of San Jose, there is a group of about 15 parishioners at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Joseph, who have joined forces for the cause.
“He is a great example of a person of faith,” said Merylee Shelton.
Tolton was given the title Servant of God on February 24, 2011, when it was announced that the church officially began the formal introduction of his cause for sainthood.
Born in 1854 in Missouri, which was then a slave state, Tolton was baptized and raised Catholic. When he was seven years old, his mother, along with him and his brother and sister, decided to escape slavery and went to the city of Quincy in Illinois, which was a free state. It was a 41-mile trip and it involved a lot of walking and riding in a rickety rowboat, but they made their way to freedom.
As a child growing up free, Tolton spent half his time working in a tobacco factory and half his time going to Catholic school. He was a devout boy, who became a devout young man. As he approached his teens, Tolton decided he wanted to become a priest. When no seminary or religious order in the United States would accept him because of his race, the priests in Quincy decided to start his education in town.
Five years later, Tolton was accepted by the Franciscans at Saint Francis College (now Quincy University). After a couple of years Tolton was accepted into the seminary in Rome. Then six years later, at the age of 31, Tolton was ordained a priest. He thought he would travel to Africa and serve, but he was instructed to return to the United States and serve the African-American community. So, Tolton returned to Quincy.
While in Quincy, Tolton attempted to organize a parish there, but found resistance from both white Catholics and Protestant African-Americans. Tolton was then reassigned to Chicago.
In Chicago, Tolton led a mission society, Saint Augustine’s, and he led the development and administration of the African-American “national parish” of Saint Monica’s. The church grew to have 600 parishioners.
In 1893, at the age of 39 Tolton began to be plagued by “spells of illness.” At the age of 43, Tolton collapsed and died as a result of a heatwave.
“We are looking to generate interest about him,” said Shelton. “Not many people on the West Coast know about him.”
Interestingly, Saint Columba Catholic Church in Oakland has a statue of Tolton.
“I grew up in Oakland and I had heard about him,” said supporter Tim Gray. “Then Tolton fell off my radar. I then heard Merylee talk and decided to take up the cause to make him a saint.”
Shelton said she first became aware of Tolton on a visit to Chicago when her cousin told her about him.
“There are not a huge number of African-Americans in Santa Clara County,” said Shelton, “but I think this can be a movement to heal the black community in America. This would be huge if it could happen.”
It was the late Cardinal George of Chicago who announced on March 2, 2010, that he was beginning an official investigation into Tolton’s life and virtues with a view to opening the Cause for canonization. This Cause for sainthood is also being advanced by the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, where Tolton first served as a priest and the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, where his family was enslaved.
On September 29, 2014, Cardinal George closed the investigation. The dossier of research moved to the Vatican where the documents collected are being analyzed and evaluated. From there, his supporters are hoping it is passed onto Pope Francis, who can declare Tolton “venerable” if the Pope determines he led a heroic life. Then Tolton could be declared “blessed,” which is the final step before sainthood.
“Tolton never lost his faith,” said Shelton, who said at least one miracle has been attributed to him. “I think the story of Father Tolton is very inspiring.”
On the anniversary of his death, July 9, Shelton is hoping to begin a novena to ask the Holy Spirit for intercession on Tolton’s behalf.
“I really see him as a modern-day version of Job,” said Shelton.