31 JULY 2011. Today is the last day of July and the Eighteenth Sunday in ordinary time. However, before we leave July let's reflect on one of the Church's courageous ministers from here in the United States.
Augustine Tolton was born into a slave family in Missouri on 1 April 1854. His father was Peter Paul Tolton and his mother was Martha Jane Chisley. The child's mother had been raised in the Catholic faith, so she named her newborn son after Saint Augustine of Hippo. The child was baptized in St. Peter's Catholic Church in Brush Creek, Missouri (about 12 miles outside of Hannibal, Missouri). The owner of the slave family (as repugnant as it is today to describe one as the owner of another, the description is, sadly, historically accurate) was Stephen Elliot. His wife, Susan Elliot, stood as Augustine's godmother for his baptism.
There are conflicting stories about whether Augustine's family ran away or were freed by the Elliots. In either event, however, history does tell that Peter Paul Totlton went to fight in the Union Army after the outbreak of the Civil War. Martha Jane took Augustine and his siblings, with the aid of sympathetic Union Soldiers and police, to Quincy Illinois.
After arriving in Quincy, Augustine with his mother and brother, took jobs working in a cigar factory. After his brother died at a young age, Augustine met Father Peter McGirr, an Irish-American priest who saw that Augustine attend St. Peter's parochial school during the winter months when the cigar factory was closed. Father McGirr's actions were controversial, however, as a number of parishoners objected to a black child attending school with white children. Despite the controversy Father McGirr was steadfast in seeing to Augustine's Catholic education.
Despite Father McGirr's support, Augustine was rejected by every American seminary to which he applied. So, instead, he attended St. Francis Solanus College in Quincy (now Quincy University) and, with Father McGirr's help, later attended The Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome, where he became fluent in Italian and learned Latin and Greek. After graduation, Augustine Tolton was ordained to the priesthood at the age of 31 on Easter Sunday, 24 April 1886, at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Having been trained as a missionary priest, Father Augustine expected to be sent to Africa, but he was instead sent back to the United States to serve the African American Catholic community in this country.
Returning to the United States, Father Augustine celebrated his first public mass at St. Boniface Church in Quincy. He attempted to start an African American parish in Quincy, but he faced strong opposition from white Catholics, who were primarily of German descent, and African American protestants who did not want the new parish to attract people from their ranks. Despite opposition, Father Augustine organized St. Joseph Catholic Church and School in Quincy, although opposition continued from inside the Church as the priest in charge of the deanery in which St. Joseph was located wanted Father Augustine to turn away white people from mass and other services.
History records that many of Father Augustine's masses at St. Joseph were standing-room only. Father Augustine's tremendous character and well delivered homilies drew widespread attention to him and his parish. During this time Father Augustine also came to be known as Good Father Gus.
In A.D. 1887, Good Father Gus was reassigned to Chicago and a few of his Quincy parishioners followed him. In Chicago, Father Augustine led a a missionary society, St. Augustine's, which met in the basement of St. Mary's Church. And, with financial assistance from Saint Catherine Drexel he founded St. Monica's Catholic Church, the national parish for African American Catholics at the time, on the corner of 36th and Dearborn Streets on the South Side of Chicago.
The success and faithful fervor of St. Monica's earned Father Augustine the national attention and gratitude of the United States' catholic bishops. At its peak, St. Monica's has more than 600 active parishioners.
On 2 March 2010, Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, announced that he was beginning the diocesan investigation into the life of Father Augustine Tolton to begin the long process that could ultimately lead to Father Augustine's canonization. On 24 February 2011, the cause for Father Augsutine's canonization was officially opened. Thus, he now has the title of "Servant of God." A guild has been erected to promote Father Augustine's cause.
It is no doubt that Father Augustine Tolton must have faced much adversity and mistreatment because of the racial inequalities and prejudices that were prevalent in his time. Despite that, Father Tolton was not negative, but shone the joyous Light of Christ to the world as a missionary here in the United States, his own country. Please pray for Father Augustine's cause, and lift up your needs in confronting whatever adversity you face today to the power of Father Augustine's intercession.
O God, we give you thanks for your servant and priest, Father Augustus Tolton, who labored among us in times of contradiction, times that were both beautiful and paradoxical. His ministry helped lay the foundation for a truly Catholic gathering in faith in our time. We stand in the shadow of his ministry. May his life continue to inspire us and imbue us with that confidence and hope that will forge a new evangelization for the Church we love.
Father in Heaven, Father Tolton’s suffering service sheds light upon our sorrows; we see them through the prism of your Son’s passion and death. If it be your Will, O God, glorify your servant, Father Tolton, by granting the favor I now request through his intercession (mention your request) so that all may know the goodness of this priest whose memory looms large in the Church he loved.
Complete what you have begun in us that we might work for the fulfillment of your kingdom. Not to us the glory, but glory to you O God, through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are our God, living and reigning forever and ever.