First Black Catholic Priest Up For Sainthood

Rev. Augustus Tolton was the country's first known black Roman Catholic priest in the 1800s. Earlier this week, Cardinal Francis George of the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that he planned to nominate Tolton for sainthood. Host Michel Martin talks with C. Vanessa White of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago about Tolton's life and potential sainthood.

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Here's another faith story, this one from the history books. But, actually, it's a story that has not gotten much attention in the history books. But that may be about to change. John Augustine Tolton, born into slavery in 1854, escaped to freedom with his family and later became the nation's first known black Roman Catholic priest.

On Wednesday, it was announced that Cardinal Francis George of the archdiocese of Chicago would introduce a case for sainthood for Father Tolton. Joining us now to tell us more is C. Vanessa White. She is the director of the Augustus Tolton Pastoral Ministry Program and a professor of spirituality at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She's joining us now on the phone from Anaheim, California where she's attending a conference. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

Professor C. VANESSA WHITE (Director, C. Vanessa White of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago; Spirituality, Catholic Theological Union in Chicago): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, Reverend Tolton had quite an amazing story, not the least of which was his family's escape from slavery in Missouri and his mother apparently had to dodge Confederate bullets to get and they ultimately fled up in Quincy, Illinois. But do we know how he came to be called to the priesthood?

Prof. WHITE: Well, what we know is that his mother escaped with him and three other children to Illinois. They crossed the Mississippi River. They arrived in Quincy, Illinois. And Illinois was a free state at that time. And when he arrived in Illinois, the area that he was in was a strong Catholic area and he was baptized Catholic.

MARTIN: Okay. And I understand that he had to travel to Rome to be ordained because no American seminary would admit him.

Prof. WHITE: Yes. That is correct. That what happened was that he attended Quincy College so he attended Quincy College and after that he began applying to seminaries with the help of the parish priest in the area. And no Catholic seminary in the United States would accept him. And so he had to travel to Rome to study at the seminary in Rome.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that he had hoped to serve as a missionary in Africa after he was ordained, but the Vatican sent him back to Quincy, Illinois, where somehow he was actually, the story goes, that he was greeted with amazing hospitality. And then later oversaw an integrated congregation. And it just seems curious to me if he couldn't no seminary would admit him and yet he came back and served an integrated congregation. How did that work?

Prof. WHITE: Well, what happened was that he thought he was going to be a missionary in Africa. The ordaining bishop said, let's see how enlightened the U.S. is. U.S. always spoke about being an enlightened nation. We're going to send you back. He came back to Quincy. Now, he became the pastor of a black church in Quincy. What happened was that the white parishioners at other churches heard about him, heard that he was an amazing preacher and pastor, and began attending his church.

The priests, though, in the diocese were against him and were very jealous, in fact, and gave him a very difficult time. While the parishioners, both black and white, welcomed him.

MARTIN: Wow. That's very interesting. So, what is the process now going forward to the process for canonization. It's my understanding that there needs to be evidence of miracles. Do we know of any claims of miracles associated with Father Tolton?

Prof. WHITE: We don't know yet. But it begins, really, in looking at whether the person for candidacy for the sainthood has led a holy life. And so that is the beginning of the process. And so Bishop Joseph Perry, who was the auxiliary bishop of Chicago, has been appointed by Cardinal George to gather this information about his life. And in the process, what has happened is that a prayer has been formed, and what has also happened is that we're communicating to people to begin praying for the intersession of Father Augustus Tolton.

So just as I would ask you to pray for me in the case of some difficult time, we're asking people to pray to Father Augustus Tolton. And then if there is some miraculous miracle that happens because of the intercession of Father Augustus Tolton to then report it to the archdiocese.

MARTIN: All right, well, finally, before we let you go, what do you think it would mean for Father Tolton to become St. Augustus?

Prof. WHITE: I think it would mean a lot, one, to the black Catholic community of the United States and to those of African descent, to see that someone who had been born into enslavement has now reached the highest pinnacle, in a sense, of the church. So that's one thing. Also, I think it would show just the power of perseverance. Father Augustus Tolton persevered through tremendous trials and sufferings - and he fulfilled his call.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. C. Vanessa White is the director of the Augustus Tolton Pastoral Ministry Program and a professor of spirituality at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. We caught up with her at a conference in Anaheim. Thank you for joining us and happy Easter to you.

Prof. WHITE: Thank you, and have a wonderful day.

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