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The first African-American diocesan priest moves closer to sainthood

December 30, 2016

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On the morning of Dec. 10 in a cemetery in Quincy, Father Augustus Tolton’s cause for canonization took one step further as his remains were exhumed and verified.

Father Tolton, a former slave, is the first recognized American diocesan priest of African descent. In 2011, the Archdiocese of Chicago officially opened his cause for sainthood.

While digging up Father Tolton’s grave may seem like a macabre undertaking and the antithesis of the prayer “may they rest in peace,” it is actually a reverent and well thought out part of church law regarding the remains of holy people.

“This goes back to a very ancient tradition in the church for a number of reasons. One was to document that the person really existed and wasn’t a figment of someone’s imagination or some group’s imagination. Finding their grave was the telltale sign that the person lived, breathed and walked this earth,” said Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry, who is postulator of the priest’s cause and one of the nation’s African-American Catholic bishops.

“It’s basically out of our theology, our tradition that our bodies are made holy in baptism and the reception of the Eucharist and eventually they rise to glory. So while we’re treating everyone with dignity in life, even their remains are to be given a kind of a reverential handling,” said Bishop Perry.

While Father Tolton died in Chicago in 1897, he requested to be buried in Quincy, which is in the Diocese of Springfield. He and his family had fled there after escaping slavery in nearby Missouri and it’s where he returned to minister after being ordained in Rome. He is buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery in a plot with another Quincy priest. Today that cemetery is sandwiched in between KFC and Wendy’s restaurants and located along a commercial shopping thoroughfare.

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