10 July 2017

Homily on the 120th Anniversary of the Death of Father Augustus Tolton

Homily at Vespers for the

120th Anniversary of the Death of the Servant of God

Father Augustus Tolton

Dear brothers and sisters,

The grave of Father Augustus Tolton
PHOTO: Gretchen Mason
For nearly two full days in Illinois in 1897, “the mercury had not crawled below the 80-degree mark, and the heat wave had penetrated into the innermost citadels of comfort and coolness.”[1] In its wake, twelve babies in Quincy and nine adults in Chicago lay dead, one of whom was our beloved Servant of God, Father Augustus Tolton, who died on July 9th at 8:30 p.m. at the age of forty-three.

On July 11th, they brought his body into St. Monica’s church in Chicago, where he served as pastor for eight years, there to lay in state until his funeral Mass the next day. His body arrived in Quincy on July 13th and was received at the old St. Peter’s church at 8th and Maine streets for a requiem Mass. Later that day, the Quincy Journal noted that

the church was filled with the friends of the deceased priest, whose reputation was national, and the many lovely floral tributes were evidence of the high esteem in which he was held. Seldom has St. Peter’s Church held such a large funeral assemblage as was gathered there this morning.[2]

After the Mass, the body of Father Tolton was brought in procession to this cemetery, where he was laid to rest one hundred and twenty years ago. “The cortege which followed the body to the grave was over four blocks long”[3] and “street cars took those out to the end of the line who could not be accommodated with carriages, they then walking from Baldwin Park to the burial ground.”[4] Though fewer in number, we, today, have retraced many of their steps because we, also, wish to offer some token of the high esteem in which we hold our friend, Father Gus.

A procession to pilgrims to Father Tolton's grave
PHOTO: Gretchen Mason
It was said at the time of his death that “the story of his life reads like a romance.”[5] These words may seem strange to us, given that he was born into slavery, that he endured prejudice as a boy, and that he suffered discrimination as an adult, even from a fellow priest. This does not seem like a romance to us. His was a life seemingly marked by opposition wherever he turned, save for a few moments of calm. Even his death from heat exhaustion seems unromantic, but romance did not always mean what it does today.

In the fourteenth century, a romance was a story concerning the adventures of a knight, or even of a hero. When the Quincy Morning Whig learned Father Tolton had collapsed on a sidewalk in Chicago, they called him “a gentleman of the rarest merit.”[6] Is this not a fine description of a hero, or even of what a knight was supposed to have been? Even now the Holy See is examining the life of Father Gus to discern if he did in fact lived a life of what we call heroic virtue. It remains our great hope and our fervent prayer that Mother Church will favorably judge his life and call him venerable.

Father Roy Bauer, who studied the life of Father Gus better than any of us, often reminded me of Father Tolton’s long-suffering, of his willingly and patiently enduring lasting offense and hardship. It is not a common phrase these days in which we have so little patience with ourselves or with others, in which we are quick to take offense at the smallest thing and do not hesitate about broadcasting our anger, but, I dare say, Father Gus’ long-suffering was his greatest virtue.

The now unthinkable treatment he received from one of the priests in Quincy is well known to us. In a letter to then-Archbishop James Gibbons, Father Tolton expressed something of the reason he endured such prejudice from a brother priest:

I can say this most Most Rev. father that at first the priests here [Quincy] rejoiced at my arrival now they wished I were away because too many white people come down to my church from other parishes: I am sorry of course but I can’t drive them away.[7]

This, of course, is precisely what this particular priest wanted him to do, but Father Gus did not publicly condemn or speak ill of him.

When finally he could take no more, in July of 1889, Father Tolton wrote to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome, for which he was ordained a priest, saying:

There is a certain German priest here who is jealous and contemptuous. He abuses me in many ways and he has told the bishop to send me out of this place. I will gladly leave here just to be away from this priest. I appealed to Bishop [James] Ryan and he also advises me to go elsewhere.[8]

In the midst of his troubles with this priest, Father Gus began speaking across the country to raise money for his parish, but he never spoke against the one who should have been as a brother to him, not even after he left Quincy on December 19, 1989. Indeed, in January of 1891, Father Tolton explained to Father Slattery that “the cause of my being in Chicago now” is “the jealousy of a Dutch priest in which facts I have kept hid and will never let them out through fear of it greatly injuring the success of the mission among the colored race.”[9]

In all of this, Father Gus never mentioned the name of the priest who made his life so difficult, neither in letter nor in public speech; he simply described the reality of the situation without impugning the reputation of another. In a time in which we are quick to shout our disagreements with others or to reveal their faults in whatever way we can, Father Tolton stands as a model of long-suffering - of willing, patient endurance of hardship - a fruit of his deep humility and the strength of his faith. We might rightly say that long-suffering is the way to embrace the Cross as it comes to us; it is the offering of our sufferings with those of Christ Jesus for the sake of his body, the Church (cf. Colossians 1:24). That Father Gus was filled with an “ardent charity and self-denying zeal” was noted by Mary Elmore even during his life; his charity and zeal were the fruits of his long-suffering and in this he is a model for us to follow.[10]

The procession arrives at Father Tolton's grave
PHOTO: Gretchen Mason

The adventure of Father Gus’ life was marked by the Cross. He embraced it knowing that “the Lord will bless those who fear him, the little no less than the great” (Psalm 115:13). It is his confidence in the Lord’s loving care for us that marks Father Tolton as a Christian hero and for this reason we give God thanks for him. May Father Gus teach us to set ourselves aside for the sake of the Gospel, to glory not in ourselves, but in God alone. May he help us to “achieve the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” and be found in Christ and with Father Tolton to be men and women of the finest merit (II Thessalonians 2:14). Amen.

[1] “Sun Shows No Mercy,” Daily Inter Ocean, July 10, 1897.

[2] “Funeral of Father Tolton,” Quincy Journal, July 13, 1897.

[3] “Priest Laid to Rest,” Quincy Daily Whig, July 14, 1897.

[4] “Funeral of Father Tolton,” Quincy Journal, July 13, 1897.

[5] “Father Tolton Stricken,” Quincy Morning Whig, July 10, 1897.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Augustus Tolton, Letter to Archbishop Gibbons, July 24, 1888.

[8] Augustus Tolton, in Roy Bauer, They Called Him Father Gus, Part 24.

[9] Augustus Tolton, Letter to Father Slattery, January 8, 1891.

[10] Mary Elmore, in Bauer, Part 27.

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