11 December 2016

Standing at the feet of Father Tolton

As the Diocese of Peoria and the Archdiocese of New York continue in their public disagreement over the transfer of the mortal remains of the Venerable Fulton John Sheen, the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois worked together yesterday to exhume the mortal remains of the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton in St. Peter Cemetery in Quincy, Illinois.

A tent was erected over Father Tolton's grave to shield the workers from the elements/
The exhumation took place as part of the ongoing process for his eventual - may it please God! - beatification and canonization. I was deeply honored to have been asked to have a role in yesterday's work and will treasure the memories of that day for a very long time.

Though I cannot as yet share the details of what was done and found yesterday, I can say the exhumation was carried out for reasons historical: to be absolutely certain Father Tolton lived and died, and is not simply the creation of someone's imagination. The exhumed proved Father Tolton did indeed live and die.

The two local television stations in the Gem City aired apparently hastily prepared news reports concerning the exhumation.

Inaccurate News Reports

KHQA erroneously reported that "while the canonization process typically takes ten years, Father Tolton has passed the first stage, having been declared Blessed." This is not true. Father Tolton has not been inscribed among the Blessed, but has instead been named a Servant of God; this is, if you will, the first stage of the canonization process.

If the Holy Father judges him to have lived a life of heroic virtue, Father Tolton will be declared Venerable, the second stage. If, after being declared Venerable, the Holy Father recognizes a miraculous healing to have occurred through Father Tolton's intercession, he will be inscribed among the Blessed, the third stage. If, after being declared a Blessed, a second miraculous healing occurs after his beatification, Father Tolton will be inscribed among the Saints, the fourth and final stage.

KHQA also erroneously reported that Father Tolton's writings must still be examined as part of the canonization process. However, his known writings have already been examined and submitted to the Holy See. In addition to his writings, the KHQA report also said the "heroic virtue and miracles during Father Tolton's life will be examined so Tolton can officially be canonized." This part is correct, though the Holy See is more interested in miracles after his death than before.

KHQA correctly reported that "anthropologists, forensic pathologists and archaeologists" were on hand yesterday and conducted the exhumation and that Father Tolton's mortal remains were placed inside a casket and reinterred in his grave.

WGEM's report inaccurately named the Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois as "John Paprocki." His name, of course, is Bishop Thomas John Paprocki. This is a sign of poor editing of the article, as can be deduced from another portion of WGEM's report:
Father Tolton was the first African-American priest to work in Quincy, and Bauer says that his legacy adds to the great history of the area.  
Bauer says that his legacy adds to the great history of the area. 
I'm not sure the repetition is needed so soon.
The WGEM report also incorrectly stated, "The Vatican now needs to confirm if Tolton performed three miracles." The Holy See is actually seeking confirmation of two miracles, one for beatification and a second for canonization.
These two reports show the wisdom of Treebeard when he cautions the young Hobbits, "Don't be hasty."

A Brief Account of the Day

After everyone involved in the exhumation gathered at the grave, we sang "Blest Be the Everlasting God" and listened to the words Father Tolton spoke before he left Quincy for Chicago in November of 1889:
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.
We then heard Leviticus 19:17-18 read aloud and then prayed to God asking him to guide the work of our hands as we exhumed the remains of this holy priest. Then the work of the day began.
As the notary of the day's proceedings, it was my happy duty to record what happened and when it happened throughout the course of the exhumation. This provided me the unexpected privilege - and the sublime joy - of standing at the feet of Father Tolton as his remains were lifted from his grave and clothed again in the sacred vestments of a priest.

Once the forensic pathologist and anthropologist concluded their investigation, Father Tolton's remains were transferred to a new casket, which was then placed inside a vault and lowered into his original grave. There the remains of this Servant of God will rest, until we he is raised by the Holy Father to the dignity of the altars.

Once he was returned to his grave, those present gathered again to pray. We sang Father Tolton's favorite hymn, the hymn with which he was welcomed back to Quincy 130 years ago, "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name." We then heard the following passage from Sr. Caroline Hemesath,'s From Slave to Priest:
Detail of a work by Isabel Armengol
Father Tolton won the hearts of old and young alike. The secret of his success lay in his innate simplicity and genuine love for all with whom he came into contact. He never tired of telling his people that God cared for each one of them and that he had a deep concern for the welfare of every one of his children. To prove his statements he invariably referred to the Gospel. By means of a clear explanation or simple dramatization, Father Tolton was able to recreate scenes of Christ’s life on earth and his mission among mankind; he repeated the words of the Master with such profound reverence that his hearers sensed the presence of the living Christ. No prelate ever received higher praise than that accorded to Father Tolton by a very young pupil of Saint Joseph’s School. Seeing the priest on the street, the child said to its mother, “See, there goes Jesus” (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006, pages 179-180).
We heard next a reading of I John 3:14-16 and gave thanks to God for the work he guided and prayed the Prayer for the Canonization of Father Augustus Tolton.

Those involved in the proceedings then enjoyed a warm meal together and parted company, now bound together by a common friendship with Father Tolton.

A Few Personal Reflections

Despite the cold temperatures, I cannot recall hearing any grumbling or complaints of being uncomfortable (though some of us did stand in front of heaters from time to time to warm our toes). Nor do I remember hearing that demonstrate a great reverence for the task at hand. The day was marked by tranquility, amicability, and a reverence for the sacred. I will attempt to put it better into words in the days ahead, though I am not sure I will able to do so.

For years I have walked where Father Tolton's feet have trod, both in Quincy and in Rome; yesterday I stood beside him and gazed with love upon his mortal remains in these days as we look to the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus who will raise our mortal bodies from the dust of the earth. Though I do not follow it as well as I should like, Father Tolton's life of quiet humility and long-suffering is an inspiration to me. Some people dream of standing on the shoulders of giants; I hope merely to walk in the shadow of this humble man who never lashed out against his enemies.

Bishop Paprocki was right when he said, "To have someone from your own hometown to be a saint, to be a role model, to show other people how to be as a Christian, that's a great thing to have." All of Quincy should rejoice as Father Tolton's cause for beatification and canonization continues to advance, one step at a time. Quincyans know Father Gus as one our our bright gems, as one of our citizens who represent the best of our beloved city; Catholics, we pray, will soon know him as a Saint, one of those who, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, "shine with [Jesus'] light and so guide us along our way" (Spe salvi, 49). May Father Tolton soon be as a heavenly gem, drawing all who look to him toward the merciful love of Jesus!

The Reverend Landry Genosky, O.F.M. (who baptized and confirmed me) once wrote in reference to Father Tolton's original burial in Quincy, "They brought the remains back to Quincy as he had requested. It was as it should be. His heart had never left it." These words kept resonating in my heart as I gazed upon Father Tolton's remains as I repeatedly him that the hearts of Quincyans will never leave him. Many Quincyans had endured extremely hot temperatures to be with me at Father Tolton's grave this past July and many more would have been with me yesterday in freezing temperatures had they been permitted.

My only regret is that I somehow did not think beforehand to bring a kukui nut lei to place inside Father Tolton's new casket as a token of my aloha for him. I should have liked to have laid one at his feet. I hope instead he will now accept the aloha of my heart and intercede for me so that I might follow his priestly heart more closely.


  1. EXCELLENT! I loved reading every word of this, as I am intrigued by the history of Fr. Tolton & his path toward sainthood. Thanks for the further explanation of yesterday's exhumation.

  2. EXCELLENT! I loved reading every word of this, as I am intrigued by the history of Fr. Tolton & his path toward sainthood. Thanks for the further explanation of yesterday's exhumation.

  3. Such a very moving account! Praying that one day you will also be present at Fr. Tolton's canonization.

  4. I enjoyed this writing very much. I was under the assumption they were taking Fr Tolton's remains to Rome for examination. I am pleased he will remain in Quincy. I look forward to more writings as the canonization progresses. Thank you.