Jill Boughton
Freelance Writer
April 3, 2018 // Local

The inspiration of Servant of God Augustus Tolton

Jill Boughton
Freelance Writer

He probably never set foot in Indiana during his short life, but Servant of God Augustus Tolton has long inspired Catholics in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, especially those who cherish their African-American heritage.

The Tolton Society of St. Augustine Parish, South Bend, hosted an overnight pilgrimage to Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton’s gravesite in Quincy, Illinois, in spring 2017. —  Provided by Deacon Mel Tardy

Born into slavery in 1854 Missouri, as a young boy “Gus” escaped across the Mississippi River with his mother and two siblings. Although he felt called to the priesthood and received encouragement in his studies from several priests, no American seminary would consider enrolling a black man; he had to travel to Rome to pursue ordination. He became a priest in 1886, expecting to minister in Africa. Instead the Church sent him back to Quincy, Illinois, where he faced intense persecution. Eventually he founded St. Monica Parish in Chicago, and later died of heat exhaustion at the age of 43.

Speaking at St. Augustine Church, South Bend, in February 2014, Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, postulator for the cause of recognizing Father Tolton as a saint, said, “This is the story of a man who overcame great odds. He is an icon of perseverance and charity, and he paved the way for future generations of Catholics of African descent.” Despite a snowstorm that developed that day, many people came out to hear Bishop Perry, generating enthusiasm for the legacy of Father Tolton.

Father Tolton was arguably the first African-American priest in the United States, notwithstanding the fair-skinned Healy brothers — James, who became a bishop, and Patrick, the first president of Georgetown University, who passed as white despite being born to a slave woman. Father Tolton inspired the founding of the Tolton Society at St. Augustine Parish, South Bend, in 1972. As longtime member Francine Henley pointed out, that was before one could learn more about the priest by just Googling “Tolton.”

“You had to depend on word of mouth. But you know, black folks are historians! The elders kept those stories alive. This man, he had some faith. I’d like to have faith like that.”

Although the original members, including Charlotte Huddleston, Ida Howard and King Richard Giloth-David, have passed to their reward within the last few years, the Tolton Society is still going strong, meeting at 12:30 p.m. the first Sunday of every month. Its membership has always been biracial, but the group has maintained its original objective: fostering a strong African-American awareness and spirituality in the Catholic Church and the wider community. Some of the means for doing that have included purchasing calendars featuring Afrocentric images for all parishioners, hanging photos of black Catholic bishops in the church entranceway to inspire the youth, funding parishioners’ attendance at National Black Catholic Congresses, and instituting the Tolton Awards, which are announced at the parish picnic every year.

After their 1998 wedding, Mel Tardy and his wife, Annie, joined the society and helped bolster its budget with a Mardi Gras dinner and silent auction. This provided the funds to do more youth outreach: summer movie nights, teen socials, trips to Amish Acres and the 4-H Fair and college scholarships for graduating seniors. Deacon Tardy and Annie have been tirelessly supportive of the many ministries of St. Augustine Parish ever since; these now include a full-fledged youth ministry.

Besides Huddleston, past Tolton Society presidents have included Nora Batteast, Pat Dempse and Deacon Tardy. Annie has led the society for the past four years. She stepped in when membership was so low they were considering disbanding: but, she observed, “When our society rediscovered our namesake, Father Tolton, it gave us new life. I would love to see an African-American saint in my lifetime.”

The society’s support of Father Tolton’s cause fulfills a key objective of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend’s Black Catholic Advisory Board Strategic Plan for Evangelization and Pastoral Care, which was promulgated by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades in March 2015 to “create diocesan awareness and devotions of Black saints and candidates to sainthood.” Although the focus is on Father Tolton, there are four other African-Americans on the path to possible canonization: Venerable Henriette Delille, Servant of God Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, Venerable Pierre Toussaint and Servant of God Julia Greeley.

One of the reasons Father Tolton faced opposition in Quincy is that white Catholics came in droves to hear him preach. Wendy Summers of the Black Catholic Advisory Board said Catholics of every race should learn about Father Tolton. “[This] is Catholic history, not just black history. It is the history of all of our faith.”

After Bishop Perry’s visit, the Tolton Society organized two pilgrimages. The first, in May 2016, brought 43 parishioners from St. Augustine, St. Pius X and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart parishes to Chicago. The second was an overnight trip in which 28 pilgrims from the diocese traveled to Brush Creek, Missouri, where Tolton was born, and to Quincy, Illinois, where he is buried. They are planning a third pilgrimage.

Father Tolton’s cause can be promoted through praying and offering Masses, contributing financially and interceding for the miracles necessary for that cause to advance.

As Bishop Perry pointed out, “In the end, the pope does not make saints; they come from the people. What Rome needs to see is that the people want Tolton to be declared a saint.”

A one-man show about Servant of God Augustus Tolton’s life, “From Slave to Priest,” will be performed in the diocese on April 24 and 26. For more information and tickets, see www.diocesefwsb.org/tolton.


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