By: Abigail Moore
Augustus Tolton, the first black Catholic priest in the United States, is widely known for his faith and courage in a journey that lead him from slave to priest. Tolton left his mark on history at several locations throughout Quincy, one being Quincy University.
Tolton stepped foot on Quincy’s campus in 1878 when it was known as Saint Francis Solanus College. After years of elementary education at Saint Boniface and Saint Peter schools, his knowledge was considered far more advanced than his peers. Because of this, he received special educational training, courtesy of the Friars at that time, to learn Greek and Latin for his mission to Rome.
“To prepare him for seminary, he had to become fluent in Latin and Greek and fortunately the Franciscans of Quincy College, he called it St. Francis Solanus College, and they are the ones who prepared him to go to the seminary in Rome,” Father Leo Enlow of St. Peter Parish said.
Father Daren Zehnle, Priest for the Diocese of Springfield, complimented the zeal of the Friars who helped prepare Tolton for his ordainment and also the continuance of that energy and passion for education. He views Quincy University as an institution that has carried that mission ever since its establishment. He believes Quincy University’s program that helped prepare Tolton for the seminary is also currently influencing students in a similar way.
“Largely, the Friars influenced all that he learned, including philosophy and theology. There is a tremendous benefit for the education, one, and two, it spurs university dedication to theology and philosophy to make students saints, like Augustus Tolton,” Zehnle said.
The Friars residing at Quincy University today want students to experience the same thing.
“Friars always look after under-privileged. We focus our energy on helping the poor and needy,” Brother Terry Santiapillai said.
Quincy University stands in a unique position as the college that educated one of the most influential men in the United States. Tolton’s path to canonization started at the roots of the university. For Quincy University, this means it’s mission has been implemented for hundreds of years and is still being lived out through academic and athletic excellence. The process of becoming a saint is quite lengthy and Father Augustus Tolton is in the middle of it.
“They have papers that have been accepted by Rome and they’ve got two miracles that have basically been approved. He won’t be canonized first he will be beatified first. Then they will go into the process of canonization. It could be a couple years,” Enlow said.
According to Catholic Education, the process of becoming a saint begins with the Bishop of the Diocese initiating an investigation. The investigation includes ‘special favors’ and ‘miracles’ granted in the saint’s intercession throughout his or her life. The candidate’s writings are investigated for the ‘Purity of Doctrine’ and the information is submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.
The next step would follow with beatification, where another miracle would be needed for canonization.
“I know that the day that he is canonized will be a joyous event,” Enlow said, grinning.
Local priests and Friars shared their admiration for Tolton on his path to canonization and how he lived out his vocation to get there. Many expressed looking to Tolton as a role-model in faith and inspiration. Tolton is honored in several places throughout Quincy, and one of those place is the QU Chapel.
“We do look to him for inspiration. Right now there is a picture of him hanging in the chapel, that’s new. Now everyone sees that as something positive for humanity, for the country and town also,” Santiapillai said.
In addition to the local honor and admiration for Tolton, an actor from Hesperia, Calif., Andrae Goodnight, was inspired in a different way.
Goodnight traveled to Quincy University to step into the role of Father Augustus Tolton in a multimedia production, Tolton: From Slave To Priest, on Nov. 12.
Prior to the production, Goodnight met with Zehnle of Quincy, who introduced him to several historical Tolton locations around the area. Zehnle took Goodnight to Brush Creek, Mo., where Tolton was born, the church where he was baptized, St. Joseph, St. Francis College, St. Boniface, St. Peter, the Railroad Station where Tolton left town, the Mississippi River where Martha Tolton crossed, and St. Mary’s Church. Zehnle concluded the day at Father Tolton’s grave, in Saint Peter’s Cemetery.
“Visiting the grave was the most powerful moment of the day. I could already tell he encountered Father Tolton. There was a connection between the two. I could tell there was an intimate moment,” Zehnle said.
At the grave stood a large cross with the intertwined letters ‘IHS’, which is a Greek translation for ‘Jesus’. The priestly logo of a stole and a chalice are engraved near the bottom of the Cross. After seeing his reaction at the grave, Zehnle noticed Goodnight’s multimedia performance was more animated, his gestures were larger and his speech was more powerful. He noticed that the connection between Tolton and Goodnight was powerful and made an impact on Goodnight’s character.
“It’s transformative. The more I learned about his story the more it challenges me personally to not value things you can see, but value things you can’t, because they tend to be the most important things. It also challenges me to continue to look outside of myself,” Goodnight said. “It’s been a personal blessing to me to be able to portray this dear man and know that he loved this city, he loved it very much. And so I feel that love when I come.”
Tolton is not only honored at Quincy University, but his presence exists in many other areas around the city. Saint Peter School, now located at 24th and Maine, honors Tolton with a large statue in front of the school and also a plaque in the Church that lists his name as an ordained priest in Quincy. The former Saint Peter school, which stood where the current Quincy City Hall building is, was destroyed in a tornado in 1945.
“We consider him our beloved parishioner of St. Peter,” Enlow said.
While Augustus was admired and loved by many, others were intolerant. Despite the experience and treatment that Tolton received while he was in Quincy, the amount of history involved is immeasurable. Zehnle clearly saw the differentiation between the people who were threatened by him and those who saw love and goodness in him.
“With one hand, we see good sides and bad sides of Quincy, in this situation. Martha and Father Tolton were allowed in Quincy and all of a sudden, forced out to Rome. Quincy welcomed him back. While in the midst of welcoming him back there were some people that had prejudice against him and made a tremendous impact on his life,” Zehnle said. “Especially today, despite prejudice, he never spoke out publicly against them. He never named the priest who gave him a hard time. Today we take such small offense at the smallest remark. He can teach us patience and love.”
Although he agreed that Quincy has a ‘good heart’, Zehnle also noted that it needs a “rejuvenation” after our city’s history with Tolton. Despite the challenges Tolton faced, he was consistent in living his life in accordance to Christ’s will and never gave up the chance to praise God.
“When you think of the first black Catholic priest in the United States. That’s remarkable, and what he overcame as far as obstacles to his priesthood. Because nobody would take him in the seminary,” Enlow said.
The story of Augustus Tolton took off in Quincy. He left an imprint of inspiration everywhere God lead him.
Tolton died in 1897 in Chicago, though he requested to be buried in the priest’s lot of St. Peter Cemetery in Quincy.