CHICAGO — Pope Francis’ June 12 decree declaring Father Augustus Tolton “Venerable,” signifying that the priest’s heroic virtues are worthy of honor by the universal Church, struck Jim Coleman as both “unbelievable, yet believable.”
For the past six months, Coleman, an acting veteran of 30 years, has been taking up the role of Father Augustus Tolton for St. Luke Productions. Coleman, who’s immersed himself in Venerable Tolton’s life to prepare for the role, told the Register that the “beautiful and tragic story” of the African American priest who escaped from slavery and gave his life spreading the Gospel to European and black Americans in Illinois, “does deserve [this recognition] so much.”
Pope Francis’ recognition of Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897) did not catch only the attention of Catholic media.
The New York Times also reported the papal declaration of “the heroic virtues” of the first publicly known black Catholic priest ordained in the United States.
“It is a significant moment, since the Church’s highest authority, the Pope himself, gives recognition of a life of holiness that can now be proclaimed to the world,” Bishop Joseph Perry, a Chicago auxiliary and postulator of Venerable Tolton’s cause, told the Register.
Augustus Tolton is one of six African-American men and women who now have open causes for canonization. Besides Venerable Tolton, there is Haitian American and New Yorker Venerable Pierre Touissant (1766-1853); Cuban-born and Baltimorean Servant of God Mother Mary Lange (1784-1882); Venerable Mother Henriette DeLille of New Orleans (1813-1862); Missouri-born and Denver’s “Angel of Charity” Servant of God Julia Greeley (c. 1833–1918); and Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman (1937-1990), a Mississippi native who served the Church in the Upper Midwest and in her home state.
These black Catholic causes are coming at a crucial time for the Catholic Church, when record numbers of Catholics are struggling with the question “Why be Catholic?” and many are exiting the pews permanently to become “Nones.”
But these black Catholic candidates for sainthood may provide a powerful answer to that question, as they all experienced scandalous treatment from various members and leaders of the Catholic Church, whether it was slavery, segregation or racial prejudice, and they had every opportunity — and apparent excuse — to leave the Church.
Bishop Perry explained that these black Catholics experienced a “crucible of suffering” amid “condemnation of blackness” that provides all Catholics with a vital reminder about the central truth of the Catholic faith.
“It makes no sense unless you love this Jesus,” Bishop Perry said, adding that black Catholic men and women handed on the Catholic faith not because they had to, but because they could “see the truth of the Catholic religion beyond the harbingers or practitioners of it that were not showing it at its best.”
“That path, that ideal of following [Jesus], is a narrow one,” he said. “And we have to somehow embrace, either reluctantly or joyously, that cross in order to find anything akin to holiness, in order to survive.”
He added, “Unless you love Jesus Christ, it makes no sense.”
Following Christ in All Things
Venerable Tolton himself was born into slavery and owned by a white Catholic family in Brush Creek, Missouri.
His Catholic mother, however, nourished his faith in God, and when they escaped to Quincy, Illinois, in 1862, it was a Catholic priest who made sure that he attended the all-white Catholic school and graduated college. But the U.S. bishops, who decades earlier had defanged a papal condemnation of slavery, had refused to allow him to enter any of their seminaries.
Eventually, Rome decided to ordain him, and after graduating St. Francis Solanus University (now Quincy University) in Illinois and attending the Pontifical Urban University in Rome, he was ordained a priest in Rome in 1886.
The Vatican sent him back to the U.S. as his mission field, where he ministered in Quincy, attracting large numbers of white and black Christians to his parish.
Bishop Perry said some despised him, and others found him refreshing and “an experience of God in our midst.”
Eventually, his opponents forced him to leave Quincy for Chicago, where he founded St. Monica’s parish in 1891, with its first church built in 1893.
After serving St. Monica’s for six years as its first pastor, Father Tolton died of heat exhaustion in 1897. “One of Father Tolton’s geniuses is that he saw the beauty and truth of the Catholic faith despite his experiences,” Bishop Perry said. “He had some really rough experiences on the part of Catholics, but he saw something deeper and survived.”
Since Rome’s decree about Venerable Tolton, St. Luke Productions has seen an uptick of bookings for Tolton.
Coleman said the African American priest’s story is appealing to all Catholic audiences, because his life reminds Catholics in a powerful way that they must follow Jesus where he calls and witness to the fact that “God commands us to love one another as he taught us.”
One young man told him after a performance, “This has changed my life and the way I’m going to do things.”
A number of black Catholic high-schoolers declared among themselves after a show, “I’m going to be the next Father Tolton.”
One white man in Texas, not even Catholic, had tears coming down his face after seeing the show. In a laconic way, the unidentified audience member summed up his experience of the play. “You got me,” he said, and then walked away.
Causes Get a Boost
Mary Leisring, president of the Julia Greeley Guild, told the Register that the guild is encouraged by Venerable Tolton’s recognition that the same will come for “Denver’s Angel of Charity,” who gave of her own resources and begged food, clothing and fuel for Denver’s poor families.
Besides being “a one-person St. Vincent de Paul Society,” Greeley promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Blessed Mother and was a daily communicant and a Secular Franciscan.
Greeley had every reason to be angry toward the world: Growing up in slavery, she watched her master beat her mother, and his whip caught in her eye.
But Leising explained that Greeley chose to live out the Gospel “as one of the Lord’s disciples.”
“She didn’t just talk about it. She did it,” Leising said.
Greeley also refused to let racial prejudice stop her works of mercy.
She delivered help to families often under the cover of darkness, so poor white families would not feel too proud, or fear retaliation, by accepting charity from a black Catholic woman.
Racism and anti-Catholicism were currents running in Denver; within two years after Greeley’s death, the Ku Klux Klan would plant itself in Colorado and dominate state politics.
But when Greeley died in 1918, her body lay in state for nearly five hours, as hundreds of people walked by her coffin to express their gratitude. “Everything she did was a selfless act,” Leising said. “Even though she had been mistreated, she was a disciple chosen to carry out the Gospel.”
Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, the only Catholic university founded by a canonized saint (Katharine Drexel), is working with the six black American canonization efforts to establish a research center that will tell the stories of these holy men and women to the wider Catholic Church.
The project is still in the development phase of raising funds and hiring a director.
Catholic Sanctity Is for All
Xavier University President Reynold Verret told the Register that the school is “very much engaged with the lives of these saints” because they all offer answers to the question many Catholics today are asking themselves in light of the sexual and financial scandals and cover-ups in the Church: Why be Catholic?
“The black Catholic insight is one of a certain paradox,” Verret said. “Many of these men and women were really not welcome in the Church, but they held on to their faith.”
And the black Catholic experience shows that following Jesus Christ is entirely the reason for living the Catholic faith amid enormous scandal.
Verret pointed out that the 272 black men and women that the Jesuits shamefully sold to save Georgetown University had every earthly reason to turn their backs on the Catholic Church.
Instead, they raised their descendents as devout Catholics because they had this insight: “We are not doing this for anyone else; we are doing this because of our relationship with God.”
Black Catholic men and women, whether it was Pierre Toussaint or Sister Thea Bowman, received deep hurts from some people in the Church’s institutions, Verret said, but they also discovered in the Church “the great depth of God’s love that comes to all of us.”
“They are telling us something profound,” he said, at this point of the crisis in the Church.
“They provide an evangelical message for all Catholics, and even all Christians.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.