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Chicago Bishop gives lecture on Father Tolton, America’s first priest of African descent

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More than 100 people gathered at the Athenaeum Monday to hear Most Reverend Joseph N. Perry, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago (second from right) discuss the possibility of sainthood for Father Augustus Tolton, a former slave and the first identified priest of African descent in the United States. Bishop Perry is the postulant for Tolton’s sainthood. Pictured from left is Andrew Hilgefort, Father Benedict O’Cinnsealaigh, Rector of Mount Sr. Mary’s Seminary of the West and President of the Athenaeum, Bishop Perry and Father Earl Fernandes, Dean of the Athenaeum. (CT Photo/Steve Trosley)
More than 100 people gathered at the Athenaeum Monday to hear Most Reverend Joseph N. Perry, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago (second from right) discuss the possibility of sainthood for Father Augustus Tolton, a former slave and the first identified priest of African descent in the United States. Bishop Perry is the postulant for Tolton’s sainthood. Pictured from left is Andrew Hilgefort, Father Benedict O’Cinnsealaigh, Rector of Mount Sr. Mary’s Seminary of the West and President of the Athenaeum, Bishop Perry and Father Earl Fernandes, Dean of the Athenaeum. (CT Photo/Steve Trosley)

By Steve Trosley
The Catholic Telegraph

The middle 19th century, including the Civil War period, was a time of tragedy and strife in America.

Emerging from this dramatic time was Father Augustus Tolton, the first American of African descent ordained to the priesthood.

The Most Rev. Joseph N. Perry, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, introduced some and expanded the knowledge of others about Father Tolton Monday evening at the Athenaeum as the final lecture in the George W. Findley Memorial lecture series for the Year of Faith. Bishop Perry is the archdiocesan (Chicago) postulator for the cause of Father Tolton.

Bishop Perry explained the trials and tribulations of slaves prior to and during the Civil War and explained how things did not get much better during reconstruction.

Father Tolton’s life journey started on a small farm in Northwest Missouri where the family that owned his family baptized him a Catholic. In a harrowing journey to the Underground Railroad city of Quincy, Ill., from his Missouri home, his mother led the family to freedom. His father escaped slavery – and probably underwrote the family’s successful escape – by becoming a Union soldier, only to die in a prison camp in Arkansas.

Priests and sisters in Quincy identified the young lad as a devout Catholic and he eventually was allowed to study for the priesthood after many rebuffs. No seminary in America would accept him despite his mastery of several languages and general academic accomplishment. After ordination in Rome, he was ready to go to Africa to begin his ministry but was sent to the U.S. by Roman authorities, who felt it was time for the United States to live up to its self-image as an enlightened, Christian nation.

Father Tolton’s popularity with black and white Catholics in his hometown of Quincy drew the ire of both Catholic and Protestant clergy. When he performed the marriage of a debutante whose mother did not approve of the fiancé, he became a pariah. He was then invited to Chicago where he established a ministry to African Americans and later died there as the result of complications following a heat stroke.

For more information on the cause of Father Tolton, see www.toltoncanonization.org.

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