Rev. Augustus Tolton, first black priest in U.S., is endorsed for sainthood by Pope Francis

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A former slave who founded the first African American Catholic parish in the city has moved a step closer to sainthood.

Rev. Augustus Tolton, along with seven other candidates, were named in decrees issued by the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Pope Francis signed the decrees on Tuesday.

Signing the decrees means Rev. Tolton and the others are considered “venerable,” a formal recognition that he “lived the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance at a heroic level,” according to a statement from the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“We welcome this news from the Holy Father on the advancement of Fr. Tolton’s cause for sainthood,” Cardinal Blase Cupich said in the statement. “Fr. Tolton’s holiness comes from his patient suffering, his brave spirit and his pastoral heart for all who came to him. His struggles to become a priest and his remarkable service to God’s people are admirable examples, particularly in these times of the value and dignity of every person.”

Tolton was born in Missouri in 1854. Some eight years later, his mother fled slavery, taking her children to downstate Quincy. After graduating there from St. Peter School, Tolton began studying for the seminary. In 1886, he was ordained as a priest in Rome. Three years later, he began his ministry in Chicago. He died in 1897, at the age of 43.

For about the last year and a half, Jim Coleman has portrayed the priest on stage in Saint Luke Productions’ “Tolton: From Slave to Priest.” The company, based in Washington state, is a professional theater and film company that produces Christian-themed shows, according to its website.

“It’s amazing — the fact that he is now venerable and he’s on the fast track to sainthood. We are definitely praying for his cause,” said Coleman by phone from North Carolina, where the show is currently being performed.

What drew people to Tolton — Catholics and Protestants alike — Coleman said, was his “dynamic preaching style and beautiful voice … Everyone wanted to hear his message.”


The Tolton Peace Center of the Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of Chicago, located in an historic building in the Austin neighborhood.
Sun-Times Media

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