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.

In attempt to fulfill her husband’s desire for the family’s freedom, Martha gathered her children and escaped to freedom across the Mississippi River. After she reached safety she told them, “Now you are! Never forget the goodness of the Lord!”

Tolton never forgot. The family settled in Quincy, Ill., and joined the Roman Catholic Church. (Their Missouri slave owners had baptized the family as Catholics.) Tolton was soon enrolled in a Catholic school, but left under the incessant protests of White parishioners who could not bear the thought of their sons and daughters attending school with a former slave.

Still, Tolton hung on to his faith in God and the desire to serve the Lord remained strong in him.

He sought admittance to seminaries, but was continually denied entrance. However, in 1878, he was admitted to Franciscan College in his hometown as a special student. Finally, because of the efforts of two parish priests in Quincy, he was enrolled in Urban College seminary run by the Propagation of the Faith in Rome, Italy, and was at last able to complete his preparation for priesthood.

After his ordination in 1886, he returned to Quincy as the pastor of St. Joseph’s Church.

Tolton developed a reputation as “a fine preacher, so much so that many of the German and Irish Catholics began to attend Mass with the Black Catholics.” But he still encountered hatred. His Masses became popular and he was considered a exceptional teacher. As his name became known, he was increasingly sought as a speaker and spent much of his young priesthood traveling. Still, the more he excelled as a priest the more jealousy and hatred was stirred up against him.

After two years in Quincy the situation had become so intolerable that Tolton was transferred to Chicago. He ministered in a Southside church basement that was known as St. Augustine’s and later became St. Monica’s Church. He was given jurisdiction of all the Black Catholics in the city, and St. Augustine’s became the center of Black Catholic life.

Tolton was considered most attentive to his parishioners and his popularity continued in and around Chicago.

“He is described as one who worked himself to exhaustion,” said Bishop Joseph N. Perry, who read Tolton’s biography last Wednesday in Chicago, according to the Catholic New World. “‘Father Tolton died during a heat wave walking home from a retreat. He was one of two priests in the city who died that week of heat exhaustion,’ the bishop said.

“Throughout his life, Father Tolton endured racism on every level, even in the church. But through it all, he remained faithful to the Lord, his Church and his people.”