The first recognized African American Roman Catholic priest is on the road to sainthood. The Rev. Augustus Tolton’s journey from enslaved child to priest is the subject of a series of events happening at the Tolton Heritage Center in Bronzeville.
Bishop Joseph Perry, who is leading the cause for Tolton’s canonization, said there are many reasons to learn more about the man affectionately known as “Good Father Gus” — starting with how he came to Illinois.
“Father Tolton was a former slave,” Perry said. “He and his family were slaves in northeast Missouri during the time of our Civil War, and the man who owned them had died without leaving a will behind. And his mother, Martha Jane, saw some dealers coming on the farm where they worked and placing price tags on things, animals, farm equipment, and even the slaves. Having lost her husband who already went to the union side of the war to fight amongst the first Negro troops that were allowed to fight in that war, she felt that she couldn’t suffer the loss of her children, especially if they were to be divided up and sold off. So she plotted and escaped during the night sometime in the summer of 1863. She eventually made it to the Mississippi River and crossed over to the state of Illinois. That trip was not without being accosted by some confederate bounty hunters who tried to recapture them, but they were saved by some union troops and Martha Jane, who never rode a boat in her life, was suddenly in a dilapidated boat with oars trying to get her children across the Mississippi River while these confederates were shooting at her. And that’s how the story begins.”
Perry is leading series of talks delving into the life and background of Tolton called “Evenings with Tolton” at the Tolton Heritage Center in Bronzeville.
“We want to spread the story, to make sure that people are acquainted with Tolton and why he is such an important figure in our history — not only of the past but even carrying a message for the present given the struggles that we have with racism today still,” Perry said. “Father Tolton gives us a couple of examples of how we handle the Christian life, walking through the gauntlet of ups and downs and sorrows and joys of life. He did it rather heroically as a Christian.”
Perry was charged with making the case for canonization by Cardinal Francis George in 2010.
“He had read the definitive biography on Tolton, which came out in about 1973 titled ‘From Slave to Priest,’” Perry said. “He was so touched by the story. He remarked to me one day that he was going to ask the Vatican if they would consider naming him a saint for all that we put him through, and that’s how it started. We want more and more people to know about him. I think he has something to say to young people, even elderly people, as a great human being, a great Christian and someone who has a message, who by his life still touches the world, still touches the African American Catholic community, especially.”