Nation's First Black Priest Could Transform Chicago's African-American Catholic Community | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Nation's First Black Priest Could Transform Chicago's African-American Catholic Community

Many African-American Catholics in Chicago are hoping a priest from the 1800s will help revitalize their religious community today. The Archdiocese of Chicago is trying to get the nation's first African-American priest – who preached here and in Quincy -- elevated to sainthood.

When Timone Davis learned the Archdiocese was pursuing sainthood for Father Augustus Tolton, this was her reaction:

DAVIS: Well, it's about time. (Laughter.)

It's not an uncommon one. There are about 2.3 million Catholics in Cook and Lake Counties. Fewer than 4 percent are African-American. So some black Catholics like Margo Butler can feel kind of alone.

BUTLER: It seems like some folks think we are an anomaly.

Butler's active in the Archdiocesan Office for Black Catholics.

BUTLER: To be black and Catholic is some kind of weird combination or weird thing or weird people. And of course, we're not. To be part of this community has been a saving grace for me.

DAVIS: People go, you're Catholic?

Again, Timone Davis. She runs an Archdiocesan ministry for young adults.

DAVIS: It's a surprise. I thought you were Baptist. It's like, so why did you think that? 'Cuz I just thought all African-Americans were Protestant, Baptist, something.

Davis says people tend to associate the U.S. Catholic church with immigrants from Ireland and Germany. What they don't realize is that people of color were baptized during slavery, and the religion continued in their ancestors.

Davis says not knowing that history has led to shrinking numbers of blacks in the pews and a lack of African-American leadership.

DAVIS: You should be at the table, you should speak about the things that concern you. So that's a challenge sometimes because there are many black Catholics used to being in the background, so whatever comes down, is OK.

As a kid, she says she never saw clergy who looked like her. She didn't think being a nun was possible.

DAVIS: I grew up Catholic, not knowing there were black Catholic religious and priests. And so I just thought that was not something that black people did, that it was always white people who did that.

Davis had never heard of Father Augustus Tolton, a priest in the late 1800s.

IRVIN: People are embracing Father Tolton.

Anthony Irvin is part of the Tolton Scholars Program. It prepares African-Americans for leadership in the church. They're inspired by Tolton's story.

IRVIN: When someone tells you you can't, Father Augustus is an ideal, a shining light that says I can. When someone says, We don't like you because of the color of your skin or because of the way you speak or because of the way you do certain things, beyond that, I can still overcome.

Tolton's mother was a slave. She escaped from Missouri to Quincy with her three children. Tolton went to several schools, where he faced threats and discrimination because of his race. Some priests and nuns saw something special, and they tutored him.

In Chicago, Bishop Joseph Perry's researching Tolton's life to figure out whether Tolton has the goods to be a considered a saint. The bishop will make the case in Rome next month.

PERRY: He was a man of great stamina and great perseverance, and those things are virtues, they're virtues for Christians, they're virtues for anybody, and he somehow emulated them in the highest degree from what I can tell.

Even though Tolton was at the top of his class, racism at the time prevented him from getting into an American seminary. When he was 26, some Franciscans convinced a seminary in Rome to admit him. That's where he became a priest.

But the cardinal in Rome sent him back to Quincy in 1886 to serve a black parish there.

PERRY: The cardinal's words were this. He says America titles itself to be the most enlightened nation. If that is the case, then they should be ready to receive a black priest.

Bishop Perry says Tolton was welcomed back by the white priests and nuns who supported him, and many others in the white community. 1,500 people attended Tolton's first mass. A thousand of them were white.

His popularity grew and eventually became threatening to the white priest of a nearby parish. The church hierarchy reprimanded Tolton and told him to stop receiving whites.

Eventually the situation grew so tense, he headed to Chicago. He was a priest here for eight years before he died of heat stroke at age 43.

Bishop Perry says people have hinted for years that Tolton should be a saint.

PERRY: But no one took the bull by the horns.

Until now. But sainthood won't happen anytime soon, if it happens at all. It's is a lengthy process with several stages.

Father Michael Fuller, a professor of spiritual theology at Mundelein Seminary, says that's by design.

FULLER: It's not meant to be overly complicated for the sake of complication. But it is meant to be very thorough, prayerful, honest and very open and not to leave anything really uncovered because what we're trying to say is that this person is worthy of our veneration, our esteem, and so we want to make sure that it's a very thorough process, and it's not hocus pocus.

Father Fuller says devil's advocates are appointed to try to poke holes in the case.

People here are already praying for Tolton's intercession. There have to be two separate miracles, verified by scientific and medical experts.

FULLER: To be a saint really means to be someone who is a model. I always say that some saints go to extremes so we can move a few inches further in our own spiritual life.


A group of 32 Catholics from the Chicago area recently gathered at the Catholic Theological Union. They came to make a pilgrimage to Father Tolton's burial site.

Anthony Irvin is hoping Tolton's spirit will guide him as he tries to carry on Tolton's legacy. Irvin is on his way to becoming part of the next generation of black church leadership. He says he already feels close to Tolton.

IRVIN: I expect to feel even closer, to the point where he may be almost like you're sitting here, almost how I can see you and touch you, I would feel that I would be able to feel his spirit in that way.

The group prayed for the cause of Father Tolton. It's a small group, but an inspired one.

Many returned home hoping that Tolton's message of perseverance will spread and touch others, the way it's touched them.

Music Button:  Pat Metheny, "Soul Search", from the CD Orchestration, (Nonesuch)

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