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Portrait of Venerable Augustus Tolton enshrined in Philadelphia basilica

Augustus Tolton

Public Domain

J-P Mauro - published on 07/25/21

The image of the illustrious American priest was positioned beside the tomb of St. Katharine Drexel.

The Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia has recently installed a portrait of Venerable Augustus Tolton. The painting, a replica of a photographic portrait, was revealed during a June 26 Mass celebrated by Archbishop Nelson Pérez in honor of the first African-American priest.

According to Catholic Phili, the painting was a gift from the Tolton Ambassadors, a national network dedicated to advancing the priest’s canonization cause. Tolton Ambassadors have been active since 2015 with the goal of raising awareness of Father Tolton’s story. The organization is backed by the Archdiocese of Chicago. 

The portrait was placed near the tomb of St. Katharine Drexel, a contemporary of Fr. Tolton. It was St. Katharine Drexel who helped fund his construction of St. Monica’s Church in Chicago. The church became a “national parish” for Catholics of color, which grew from a congregation of 30 to 600 during Fr. Tolton’s life. 

Venerable Augustus Tolton

Tolton Ambassador Madeline Tymes told Catholic Phili that she and the other group members were “very honored” by the proximity to St. Katharine Drexel. The Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul houses her tomb and family altar. 

Born into slavery, Venerable Augustus Tolton fled the bonds of servitude with his mother and sister at the start of the Civil War. As a young man he was instructed in the Catholic faith by his local pastor, Fr. McGirr. McGirr took a special interest in the boy’s education and spurred him to the seminary. 

Despite harassment from white students, Venerable Augustus Tolton graduated St. Francis Solanus College. He went on to attend seminary at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome, where he would be ordained. He was stationed back in Quincy, Illinois, where his family settled, and there he became renowned as the slave boy who became a priest. 

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