09 April 2011

In search of Father Tolton, Part I

To where it all began

Thursday I had the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to many of the places associated with the life of the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton, whose Cause for Beatification and Canonization has begun.

The pilgrimage was led by His Excellency the Most Reverend Joseph N. Perry, Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago and Diocesan Postulator for the Cause, and included His Eminence Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, Their Excellencies the Most Reverends Thomas John Paprocki, Bishop of Springfield in Illinois, John R. Gaydos, Bishop of Jefferson City, and Francis Kane, Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago, together with a members of the Tolton Guild and of the Tolton Scholars program through the Catholic Theological Union and a four seminarians from Mundelein Seminary, together with our Diocesan Chancellor and Archivist.

I left Springfield at 6:45 a.m. to drive to St. Peter's church in Brush Creek, Missouri where Father Tolton was baptized.  There Bishop Paprocki and I would meet the other pilgrims.  The church is located in the midst of fields and the road leading to it is covered with gravel.

The journey there mostly followed Interstate 72, the most tedious 100 mile stretch of pavement on the continent, and gave the time to consider the forty-one mile flight of Martha Jane Tolton from slavery on the farm near St. Peter's church with her three young children.  It is one thing to read about such an escape to freedom and imagine it in one's mind, but quite another to actually see the terrain she must have trod.

Having grown up in Quincy, I had some idea of the land across which she fled but the reality of what that night must have been like never really hit home.  Until I drove the roads crisscrossing the land she ran, all the while trying to keep her children calm and quiet so as not to be noticed.  There is - quite literally - nothing in the area of Brush Creek, not even any real physical landmarks.  It is simply fields and trees, the landscape looking the same in every direction.  She must have been a woman of extraordinary courage, of a courage that matched her faith.

Coming along the gravel road you round a curve and suddenly you see a large iron archway marking the tree-lined entrance to the church yard.

The entrance to the church yard of St. Peter church, Brush Creek, Missouri.
 It comes as rather a surprise.

The tree-lined drive leading to St. Peter's church, Brush Creek, Missouri.
  The present church is the third building on the site and not the one in which Father Tolton was baptized; nevertheless, the site is the same and thus it is holy ground.

St. Peter church, Brush Creek, Missouri, the site at which Father Tolton was baptized.
 It comes as a rather unexpected surprise.

To the right of the church is an L-shaped cemetery that wraps around the back of the church with graves from the late 1700s.

The graves are marked with large stones, many of these with fine carvings, bearing the names of the landowners of the area, some of whom were also slave owners, such as the Elliott family.

Stephen Elliott owned the Toltons and is far is about two miles from the church.  Martha must also have been a strong woman.  To care for three young children and a husband and to work in the fields throughout the week and then walk two miles each way to Mass every Sunday is no small feat.

We celebrated Mass in the church presided over by Cardinal George.  Bishop Gaydos preached an excellent homily, reflecting on the readings of the day in light of the life of Father Tolton.

After the Mass we had a small reception with many of the local residents who lovingly care for their church in which Mass is celebrated but twice each year.  Each of the residents have their own tasks to fulfill and they do so gladly.  Their love of and devotion to Father Tolton is quite evident.

The Tolton pilgrims with many of the local residents of Brush Creek, Missouri after Mass in St. Peter church.
We then made a caravan along the gravel road - raising up no small amount of dust - two miles away to the farm on which the Toltons were slaves and where Augustus was born.

Bishop Gaydos, the owners of the site of the Elliott farm, Cardinal George, Bishop Perry and Bishop Paprocki.
one of the original buildings remain and it seems likely that tobacco was then grown on the farm.

The grandfather - I believe - of the present owner (whose name I regret I do not remember) bought the property from Stephen Elliott.

From the farm we made our way to Hannibal, Missouri to place at which it is believed Martha crossed the Mississippi River with her children.

More to come.


  1. Thanks for blogging in detail about Fr. Tolton and his sainthood cause, Father. This is good reading.

    I have to admit I didn't realize the church allowed slave owners (Stephen Elliott, for instance) to be buried in Catholic cemeteries. Even though slave owning was (like abortion today) legal, it was obviously seriously sinful. Let's hope those slave owners repented of this sin on their deathbeds. One hopes those men heard homilies about the evils of slavery so that they could understand more fully that they were participating in a great (if too widely accepted) evil.

    I'm always impressed when I see church leaders take a strong stand against prejudice and bigotry -- leaders such as the late Joseph Cardinal Ritter, who took a courageous stand in favor of desegregating Catholic schools while he was archbishop of St. Louis in the late 1940s.

  2. Anonymous8:33 PM

    Very nice story! It's good to see Tolton's memory carried forward. My great aunt, Sr Caroline Hemesath, wrote the book "From Slave to Priest" regarding Fr Tolton. Peace, George Hemesath

    1. Jane Elliott Kidd8:42 AM

      I am wondering if you know where the story came from about the Wedding Celebration. I can't find any references, foot notes or attributions to any factual data. Is it just a story? According to my family history it doesn't match, names, facts etc. If you could tell me where it came from I'd appreciate it very much. Jane(Elliott) Kidd

    2. The story, I believe, has come the research of Father Roy Bauer.

    3. I found the reference in the St. Joseph's Advocate, published in 1886.

    4. Jane Elliott Kidd12:31 AM

      Is there a way that I could obtain a copy of the St. Joseph's Advocate, published in 1886 that you talked about? Thanks JK

    5. http://www.dio.org/tolton/uploads/files/Tolton/Resources/St_Josephs_Advocate_10.1886.pdf

  3. Thank you, George! I plan to post part II tomorrow.

    1. Anonymous11:09 AM

      I wonder if you realize that the tomb stone posted here isn't even the Stephen elliott that owned father tolton's mother? Maybe the facts ought to be researched more. And Anna Sivilla (Manning) Elliott who was Stephen Elliotts wife taught the slaves in the Catholic religion.

  4. Jane Elliott Kidd12:16 AM

    Just wanted to tell you that the tombstone that is pictured is not the tombstone of the Stephen Edward Elliott that owned Father Tolton. the one that is pictured is Stephen B (enedict) Elliott and Susan H(arriet) Kendrick. Stephen Edward was married to Anna Savilla Manning and she taught Augustus to read and write and was his baptismal sponsor, teaching him catechism. And there were good Catholic slave holders, the Elliotts and Mannings had all their slaves baptised and raised in the Faith even had them get married in the church, which at that time could have got them jail time and a large fine. Thanks Jane Elliott Kidd, grandaughter of Stephen E. and Anna Savilla.