18 July 2016

Homily for the Pilgrimage Procession Commemorating Father Tolton's Return to Quincy

Pilgrimage Procession and Evening Prayer
Commemorating the 130th Anniversary of the Return of the
Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton to Quincy

Dear brothers and sisters,

It was one hundred and thirty years ago this morning that the recently ordained Father Augustus Tolton returned to Quincy from Rome. Because I, too, recently returned to Quincy from studies in Rome, it is a day to which I feel a special affinity and a special closeness to Father Tolton.

In order to welcome him home, the priests then in Quincy chartered a special railroad car to bring Father Tolton from Springfield to Quincy. The train was named the “Q,” and when it pulled into the station at Front and Vermont streets, a brass band greeted Father Tolton by playing his favorite hymn, “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.”

As he disembarked, a large crowd cheered and waved in greeting to the first black priest in these United States of America. Father Tolton climbed into a carriage, drawn by four white horses and decorated with flowers, and a procession with the band and the people moved from the train station to St. Peter’s church, then at Eighth and Maine streets.  As the procession moved along, the people shouted, “Father Tolton, Father Augustus Tolton! Welcome home! Welcome home!”

When the procession arrived at St. Peter’s church, Father Tolton entered the sanctuary, blessed his mother for the first time as a priest, and began giving his blessing to the hundreds of people who came to welcome him. They received him well and welcomed him gladly as a priest, though there was earlier some confusion concerning his person. In a brief notice concerning his return published in The Quincy Journal the day before, we read:

Father Tolton explains the report of his death, which was current a couple of months ago, as having arisen from a mistake in reading the cards he sent out in memory of his first mass. As the notice contained the words ‘In memoriam,’ he supposed it was taken as a death announcement.”[1]

This is but one small example of how, in many ways, his life was fraught with misunderstanding, a circumstance even present at his return to Quincy.

Father Tolton offered the holy sacrifice of the Mass for the first time in Quincy the following day at St. Boniface church, a celebration The Quincy Daily Journal called “the grandest service ever held in Quincy.”[2] It was a day on which, as Father Tolton later recalled, “everyone received me kindly, especially the Negroes, but also the White people: Germans, Irish, and all others. I celebrated Mass on July 18, in the Church of Saint Boniface with more than 1,000 whites and 500 colored people present.”[3]

Father Anselm, the rector of St. Francis College - which would later become Quincy College and then Quincy University - preached a sermon on the priesthood. Taking a text from Saint Paul as his launching point, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God,” a text very dear to my own heart (and from which I have taken the title of my blog), he expounded on the duties and the necessity of the priesthood (I Corinthians 4:1). Afterwards, he said to those gathered, “Rejoice today because another priest has been given to us. Rejoice, and today when he holds in his hands that of which God has said, ‘This is my beloved son,’ pray for the church and that you may live and esteem and treat him as is due a priest.”[4]

Our celebration today may lack something of the pomp and grandeur of that one one hundred and thirty years ago today and our numbers may not be so high, but our devotion is no less than theirs. We, too, have come to honor the first black priest in our country and to give thanks to God for the gift of his heroic and faithful witness.

Father Tolton ministered in Quincy for nearly three and a half years before he left for Chicago to be away from an intolerable situation of prejudice. After he arrived in Chicago, Father Tolton wrote these words to a friend:

My gratitude to those people of the Gem City is threefold. Some of the white friends and benefactors of St. Joseph’s church did not forget their colored priest Father Tolton. They did not let him go away empty handed from the Gem City, but as a token of respect they have made him a suitable donation, asking him to remember them in his prayers, and promised to do three times more if he would only remain with them. Catholics will love and respect a priest regardless of nationality; at least that is the spirit of those people in the Gem City who knew me for twenty-nine years or more. Never will I forget the happy hours spent in the little St. Joseph church. I wish them all the blessings that can be bestowed upon them, for that charitable spirit that they have always shown toward me and the colored children.[5]

Three days after his departure from Quincy, Father Tolton was voted the second favorite priest in Quincy, despite the fact that he was no longer in the city. In fact, he missed being voted the favorite priest by just eleven and a half votes.[6]

All these years later, we have gathered to keep Father Anselm’s words; we have gathered to esteem Father Tolton and to treat him as is due a priest, to treat with respect and honor one who served so faithfully as a dispenser of the mysteries – of the sacraments – of God. We have come because, as the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us,

the true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by — people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way.[7]

In Father Tolton, we see the light of a good life that illuminates before us the path of Jesus Christ.

Throughout his life, Father Tolton remained “content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ” (II Corinthians 12:10). We have no record of him bemoaning the difficulties he encountered. We have no record of him drawing public attention to the harsh treatment he received from a fellow priest. In all things, he seems to have imitated Christ the Lord and remained a humble and long-suffering servant who united himself to Christ. This Servant of God allowed the love of the Lord to motivate his life and to this love he dedicated his life. His fidelity to the Church is a clear proclamation of the Gospel, and an invitation for all people to enter into and to know the merciful love of the Lord.

In this he is a model for each of us; never did he cease his proclamation of the Gospel, not even when he encountered discrimination and prejudice. As Father Roy Bauer has said, “Some people could easily judge that his life was not a success, but God calls His servants to be faithful, not successful!”[8] The fidelity of Father Tolton cannot be doubted, and for this reason he is a model and continual reminder for us that, as Saint Paul says, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10). This, I suspect, is why he remained so popular in Quincy even after he left for Chicago; this is why we remain attached to him today and have come to commemorate his return to the Gem City.

Father Tolton entrusted himself completely to the Lord and we now pray that he will soon be declared Blessed and raised to the dignity of the altars, a cause which continues to move slowly forward. Let us pray that, through his example and intercession, the Lord will raise up many more such servants of Christ in our Diocese, that each of the Lord’s altars may have a priest to administer the mysteries of God.  Amen!

[1] “Our Colored Priest,” The Quincy Journal, 17 July 1886.
[2] “Solemn High Mass,” The Quincy Daily Journal, 19 July 1886.
[3] Augustus Tolton, Letter to Cardinal Checchi, September 1886.
[4] “Solemn High Mass,” Quincy Daily Journal, 19 July 1886.
[5] Quoted in “Father Tolton,” The Quincy Daily Journal, November 13, 1889, page 4.
[6] “Lucky Ladies,” Quincy Daily Herald, November 17, 1899.
[7] Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 49.
[8] Roy Bauer, They Called Him Father Gus, Part Twenty-nine.

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