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Augustus Tolton traveling the long, difficult road to sainthood

Stanley O. Williford | 3/16/2011, 5 p.m.

Augustus Tolton, a former slave and considered the first African American to become a Roman Catholic priest, is now on the path to becoming the first African American to be canonized, almost 114 years after his death.

He may, at the same time, become the first Civil War-era U.S. saint.

Last Wednesday, during a public gathering in St. James Chapel at Chicago's Quigley Center, Cardinal Francis E. George, and commission members, took an oath to carry out their duties for the cause of Tolton's sainthood.

But what does the concept of sainthood, or canonization, mean?

It is the act by which a deceased person is verified to be in heaven. It is a process the Roman Catholic Church uses to determine that one has lived a holy, prayerful life, deserving of veneration. One of the ways the church determines that a person is in heaven and that God is working through him or her is by miracles attributed to them.

Normally, the process of sainthood does not begin until five years after the acclaimed person dies.

In some cases, sainthood takes centuries. However, after Mother Teresa's death in 1997, Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles diocese recommended that the Pope forgo the five-year wait period and begin the process of canonization immediately. Her supporters also lobbied strongly for immediate canonization. Two years later, the five-year stipulation was waived.

At least two miracles are required to be declared a saint, unless the acclaimed person was martyred for the faith. In such cases, no miracles are required. It is estimated that somewhere around 3,000 persons have been canonized, but that figure is unreliable because many saints were canonized before an official process was established.

After Mother Teresa's death, it was alleged that a family prayed to her after a young girl took a dose of Tylenol seven times the amount needed to cause her death. Her family reportedly prayed to Mother Teresa for help, and she was suddenly cured. A miracle was said to have occurred after a woman broke several ribs in a car accident and was healed because she was wearing a medallion of Mother Teresa. But the Vatican, which has to verify all miracles, has only recognized as a miracle the healing of a cancerous tumor in an Indian woman's abdomen after the application of a locket with Mother Teresa's picture on it. Still, controversy swirls around that healing. So far, Mother Teresa has only been declared Blessed (beatified), one step away from canonization.
The records are being searched to find all the particulars on Tolton, who died at age 43 in 1897.

Tolton was born of slave parents in Ralls County, Mo., on April 1, 1854, the second child of Peter Paul and Martha Jane Tolton. Two sisters were born later.

Chafing under the rigors of slavery, Tolton's father escaped, with the hope of seeking a better life for his family. He joined the Union Army, but never returned to them because he reportedly died of dysentery in St. Louis Hospital.