05 November 2017

Homily - 5 November 2017 - On the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton

The Thirty-first Sunday of the Year (A)
On the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton

Dear brothers and sisters,

Mother Church presents the lives of the Saints to us as models of Christian living because she sees something of the life of Jesus reflected in them. Each one of us is called to form our hearts after the heart of Jesus so that we might each become heralds of his merciful love in each aspect of our lives. The Apostle Saint Paul so closely conformed himself to Christ Jesus that he could say to the people of Thessalonica, “With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well” (I Thessalonians 2:8). While he went about this work of sharing the gospel, he said, “We were gentle among you” (I Thessalonians 2:7).

Gentleness, of course, is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, one Saint Paul mentions in his letter to the Galatians (Galatians 5:23). Of all the fruits of the Holy Spirit, it is perhaps the one least appreciated in our own day. Society, it seems, is becoming ever most bombastic, ever more self-centered, and ever more loud. We shout each other down, rather than listen to what each other has to say with a heart desiring to understand. Something is wrong with us and so we need someone to help refocus us on the life of Jesus, someone who can show us how conform ourselves to his heart.

It may be that one such man, the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton, whose cause for beatification and canonization is underway, died one hundred and twenty years ago this past July. His life, which is intimately connected with this Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, will be presented this week across central Illinois in the play, Tolton: From Slave to Priest.

His was a life seemingly marked by opposition wherever he turned, save for a few moments of calm. In Father Tolton, we find one who, with Saint Paul, trusted in the Lord’s words: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). Born April 1, 1854 in Ralls County, Missouri to faithful Catholic parents, Peter Paul and Martha Jane Tolton, who were slaves near Brush Creek, Missouri, Father Tolton remained a man of gentleness, the fruit of a deep life of prayer.

In 1862, Martha heard talk of slave traders in the area looking for children. Having herself been separated from her parents when she was sixteen, she feared for her children and fled the farm. After a harrowing escape through fields and over the Mighty Mississippi, they finally arrived in Quincy, Illinois, forty-one miles away; Augustus was only seven.

In 1865, he enrolled in St. Boniface school with the permission of the pastor, Father Schaeffermeyer, and found those both “hard of face and obstinate of heart,” those whose hearts were proud and whose eyes were haughty (Ezekiel 2:4; cf. Psalm 131:1). His enrollment led many to threaten to remove their children from the school, to leave the parish, and even to call for the removal of their pastor. Just one month after he enrolled, young Gus, now ten, withdrew from the school.

Hearing of his troubles, Father Peter McGirr, Pastor of St. Lawrence Parish (it would later become St. Peter Parish) insisted that Augustus study in a Catholic school. He promised he would personally see that Gus would have no trouble there. Years later, Augustus recalled, “As long as I was in that school, I was safe. Everyone was kind to me.”[1]

Deep within his soul, he seems to have felt a strong desire to share “not only the gospel of God, but [his] very self,” but because he had not yet heard of a black priest, he thought the priesthood was beyond him (I Thessalonians 2:8). He began serving Mass each morning before going to work at a local tobacco factory and became close with two priests who were both impressed with his devotion and thought he had a priestly vocation. They wrote letter after letter to seminaries and religious Orders throughout the country seeking one that would accept him; time and time again, they were told, “We are not ready for a Negro student.”

When he was twenty-four, Augustus opened St. Joseph School of Black Children in Quincy, the first of its kind in the city. Even here he was met with opposition, when black Protestants publicly refused to send their children to his school because he was Catholic.

One day a long-awaited letter arrived for Gus: he was accepted to the seminary for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome. Those ordained from this seminary would be sent to mission territories throughout the world, with no choice as to where they would be sent. Nevertheless, Gus was filled with great joy that day. He arrived in the Eternal City at the age of twenty-six and was nicknamed, “Gus from the U.S.”

Five years later, he was ordained a deacon. He later said: “The day I was ordained deacon, I felt so strong that I thought no hardship would ever be too great for me to accept. I was ready for anything; in fact, I was very sure I could move mountains – in Africa.”[2] He had spent all of his spare time studying the geography and cultures of Africa, certain he would be sent there, but the Lord’s ways are not our ways (cf. Isaiah 55:8).

The day before he was ordained a priest, Giovanni Cardinal Simeoni told Deacon Tolton it was decided the night before that he would be sent Africa, but the Cardinal over-ruled the decision. “America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world,” he said. “We shall see whether it deserves that honor. If the United States has never before seen a Black priest, it must see one now!”[3] He was sent home, to Quincy.

It was shocking news, but he had already promised his obedience. He must have remembered the difficulties of his childhood and early adulthood in the United States, but he trusted in the Lord even as he surely heard his words: “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house” (Mark 6:4). Would the people take offense at him as they took offense at Jesus (cf. Mark 6:3)?

He arrived in Quincy in July of 1886 and was appointed Pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish, which had been established as a parish for Black Catholics. He received an enthusiastic welcome in the Gem City and was admired by all. They found in him a “rich and full voice which falls pleasantly on the ears” and saw the “whole-hearted earnestness” with which he went about his ministry impressed even the local newspapers.[4]

His ministry met with some success, but affairs soon turned sour when Father Michael Weiss was appointed Pastor of St. Boniface Parish, just one block from St. Joseph’s, for it was Father Weiss who took great offense at Father Tolton. St. Boniface Parish was in debt and had given much to St. Joseph’s Parish. Many of Father Weiss’ parishioners attended Father Tolton’s Masses and contributed to his parish. Father Weiss forbade Father Tolton from ministering to whites and repeatedly made it clear that contributions from whites belonged to white parishes. This was the first time Father Tolton experienced prejudice from a fellow priest, and it devastated him.

When finally this hardship became too great for him to accept, he wrote to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. Without naming Father Weiss, he said:

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.[5]

Soon afterward, Archbishop Feehan told Father Tolton he would be welcome in Chicago, so he wrote again to the Congregation: “I beg you to give me permission to go to the diocese of Chicago. It is not possible for me to remain here any longer with this German priest.” The reply arrived two months later: “If the two bishops concur in giving their approval, go at once!”[6] Just twelve days later, he left for Chicago with nineteen of his converts and took up the pastorate of St. Monica’s chapel, where he was entrusted with the pastoral care of all of Chicago’s black Catholics. After he left Quincy, St. Joseph Parish closed for good.

One woman who encountered him, Mary Elmore, said of Father Gus, “We who come in contact with him in our labors and are witnesses of his ardent charity and self-denying zeal, feel ourselves privileged to – bow the knee for his saintly blessing.”[7] Within two years he began construction on a new church – that was never completed – and ministered to some six hundred black Catholics.

Having spent himself in the service of the Church, he died of heat stroke in 105 degree weather on July 9, 1897; he was forty-three years of age. St. Monica’s became a mission and it took another two years for a full-time pastor to be assigned to it. St. Monica’s closed for good in 1924.

His is a life of deep faith and of perseverance. Speaking to a group of black Catholics, he said:

I was a poor slave boy but the priests of the Church did not disdain me. It was through the influence of one of them that I became what I am tonight… It was the priests of the Church who taught me to pray and to forgive my persecutors. It was through the direction of a Sister … that I learned to interpret the Ten Commandments; and then I also beheld for the first time the glimmering light of truth and the majesty of the Church. In this Church we do not have to fight for our rights because we are Black. She had colored saints – Augustine, Benedict the Moor, Monica. The Church is broad and liberal. She is the Church for our people.[8]

Despite the opposition he faced, he never lost his love of the Church or of the priesthood, and never did he condemn Father Weiss or speak ill of him, so deep was his gentleness. Throughout his life, Father Tolton could sing with the Psalmist, “In you, Lord, I have found my peace” (cf. Psalm 131).

In this he is a model for each of us; never did he cease his proclamation of the Gospel or the sharing of himself with those he met. 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!”[9] The fidelity of Father Tolton cannot be doubted, and for this reason he is a model for us all and a continual reminder that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10).

Father Tolton found his place of refuge in the Lord and now we pray that he will be declared Blessed and raised to the dignity of the altars. May his example and intercession raise up many more such faithful and devoted priests in our Diocese, that each of the Lord’s altars may have a holy and zealous priest to administer the mysteries of God. Amen!

[1] Roy Bauer, They Called Him Father Gus: The Life and Times of Augustine Tolton, First Black Priest in the U.S.A., Part Eight.
[2] Ibid., Part Fifteen.
[3] Ibid., Part Seventeen.
[4] The Quincy Journal, July 26, 1886.
[5] In They Called Him Father Gus, Part Twenty-four.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Mary Elmore, Letter to John R. Slattery, SSJ, 1890-1891. In The Father Tolton Guild: Official Organization for the Promotion of the Cause for Canonization of Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), October 2017, 3.
[8] Roy Bauer, They Called Him Father Gus, Part Twenty-three.
[9] Ibid., Part Twenty-nine.

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