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Shrine at parish honors first Black priest in U.S.

Holy Name of Jesus Parish draws attention to social justice, servant of God’s 167th birthday

Holy Name of Jesus Parish has an icon of Servant of God Father Augustin Tolton, the first Black priest in America, installed in a shrine.
Photo Credits: Lisa Johnston
April 1 would be the 167th birthday of Father Augustus Tolton — and there are a few places in St. Louis where the 19th-century priest is remembered, including a new one just in time for his birthday.

Father Tolton, the first Black Catholic priest in the United States, lived a life of dedicated service and tireless ministry in addition to having endured great prejudice. Because of his life of heroic faith, his cause for sainthood is now under way in Rome.

There’s a new shrine to him at Holy Name of Jesus Church in north St. Louis County focused on an icon depicting Father Tolton, whose title in the canonization process is servant of God. It was set up earlier this year just in time for the celebration of his 167th birthday.

The shrine is in an area with other items calling attention to the parish’s efforts for social justice and peace. Highlighted is the parish’s 2013 membership commitment in the North County Churches Uniting for Racial Justice and Harmony. Initially 114 parishioners committed themselves to the covenant displayed there. Also displayed is a notice of the 2018 peace pole dedication representing the parish’s commitment to work and pray for world peace and social justice in our community.

In the parish bulletin, Father Michael Henning, pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Parish, wrote that Father Tolton’s “life and works are now being considered in support of his canonization. As an African-American priest, he faced discrimination both within our Church and our society.”

Some of the other churches that commemorate Father Tolton include Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Church in Ferguson, which has a large portrait of him, and St. Alphonsus Liguori (Rock) Church in St. Louis, which has a statue of Father Tolton. In 1887, Father Tolton met the Redemptorist community at St. Alphonsus Church and celebrated Mass for the School Sisters of Notre Dame in the convent chapel. The St. Charles Lwanga Center has the icon framed on a table with prayer cards.

Father Tolton was born in 1854 in Brush Creek, Missouri, near Hannibal. It was part of what was then the Diocese of St. Louis, and is now in the Diocese of Jefferson City. His parents were slaves who lived on adjoining farms owned by Catholic families. Father Tolton was baptized Catholic at St. Peter Church in Brush Creek. His father joined the Union Army when the Civil War broke out. His mother took her three children across the Mississippi River to Quincy, Illinois, a free state where she was assisted by those sympathetic toward runaway slaves.

An Irish priest, Father Peter McGirr, recognized the talent of Augustus, who attended Mass when possible. He invited him to attend the parish school taught by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Franciscan and diocesan priests helped tutor him when he expressed an interest in the priesthood. But no seminary or religious order in the country would accept a Black candidate at that time. He was admitted in 1880 to the College of the Propagation of the Faith, a mission seminary in Rome, and was ordained there at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in 1886.

He became pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Quincy and later established St. Monica Church in Chicago. Despite rampant racism and discrimination, he became one of the city’s most popular pastors, attracting members of both white and Black Catholic communities. On July 9, 1897, he died of heatstroke on a Chicago street at the age of 43.

The icon at Holy Name of Jesus Church first hung in Christ Light of the Nations School. Holy Name of Jesus Parish is involved in several areas of justice and social concerns. It takes part in the Room at the Inn program, has a strong Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference, hosts a faith and justice group that includes parishioners from St. Philippine Duchesne Parish in Florissant, and more.

>> Icon of Father Tolton

Icons are not merely portraits, they are vehicles for prayer. The icon of Father Augustus Tolton, like all icons, does not have an exterior light source, but shows one who is illuminated from within.

Father Tolton, with the title venerable through the canonization process, was denied admittance to American seminaries because of his race, but was accepted in Rome. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the red tassel on his biretta was an honor reserved only for priests who studied in Rome. In the icon, he is vested in a white chasuble which signifies not only his love of the Mass, but Easter joy and his immersion in the Paschal Mystery.

Father Tolton blesses the viewer with his right hand and even this silent benediction honors Christ; the three fingers joined recognize the Holy Trinity while the two fingers raised declare the Humanity and Divinity of Christ in One Person. Father Tolton’s left hand rests over his heart, symbolizing his great and burning love for the People of God who he served in Chicago. His fingers are slightly separated, symbolizing the prejudice and separation he and other African-Americans experienced, but which acts of love, service and forgiveness one day heal and join.

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago commissioned the icon. It was underwritten through the generosity of Martha and Howell J. Malham. This print is one of a limited worldwide edition of 2,500, signed and numbered by the artist. One-half of the proceeds from the sale of this icon are being donated in support of Father Tolton’s cause for canonization.

>> Covenant

The North County Churches Uniting for Racial Justice and Harmony are committed to:

• Becoming better informed about people of other races and cultures to overcome fears and misconceptions

• Considering how issues of racial prejudice and privilege affect each person

• Working to erase the sins of racism and injustice in the community

• Prayerfully heeding the call to embrace people of all colors, faiths, economic and social backgrounds as brothers and sisters

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