Father Augustus Tolton Is One Step Closer to Being the First Black American Saint

A Vatican committee has unanimously voted to send the sainthood cause of the first African-American priest in the United States to the next stage.

Father Augustus Tolton
Father Augustus Tolton (photo: Public domain, Wikipedia)

CHICAGO — A Vatican committee has unanimously voted to send the sainthood cause of Father Augustus Tolton, a former runaway slave and the first African-American priest in the United States, to the next stage.

Father Tolton was born into slavery in Monroe County, Missouri, in 1854 and escaped to Quincy, Illinois, with his family during the Civil War. He studied for the priesthood in Rome because no American seminary would accept him on account of his race. He was ordained in 1889 and served for three years at a parish in Quincy, eventually accepting an invitation to come to Chicago, where he led St. Monica parish until his death in 1897.

A nine-member theological commission at the Vatican voted unanimously Feb. 5 that Tolton’s sainthood cause, which began in 2010, be moved forward and presented to the “Ordinary Meeting of Cardinals and Archbishops,” the Archdiocese of Chicago announced last month.

There the members will take a final vote before presenting a “Decree of Heroic Virtues” to Pope Francis for approval.

Father Tolton would receive the title of “Venerable” after that decree’s approval, which indicates he “lived the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance at a heroic level,” the archdiocese said.

Father Tolton would be declared “blessed” once it is confirmed that one miracle has been granted by God through his intercession. A second miracle is typically required for canonization.

The late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago announced Father Tolton’s cause for canonization in March 2010, and Father Tolton received the designation “Servant of God,” a title given by the Vatican once a sainthood cause has begun, in February 2011.

A committee of six Vatican officials unanimously approved as historically correct a document known as the positio, summarizing the life, virtue and Father Tolton’s alleged miracles in 2018.

The positio, sent to Rome in September 2014, was the result of extensive research conducted in Chicago and included “documents, publications, correspondence, newspaper clippings and historical facts of the era in which he lived.”

The Congregation for Causes of Saints in Rome officially opened “The Acts of the Diocesan Inquiry” into Father Tolton’s life and virtues in March 2015, and in April 2015 the congregation approved the juridical validity of the diocesan inquiry.

The Vatican granted a nihil obstat to Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, in June 2016 to allow the diocese to exhume Father Tolton’s remains. His body was subsequently wrapped within a new set of priestly vestments and reinterred.

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COMMENTARY: ‘We all want progress,’ writes C.S. Lewis, ‘but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.’