COLUMBIA, Mo. — The students of Father Tolton Catholic High School in Columbia weren’t in Chicago when the dossier containing four years of research on the man after whom their school was named was sealed with red wax and sent off to the Vatican.
For the Tolton Trailblazers, the canonization of their namesake would mean a change in the name of their school, the first Catholic high school in this central Missouri college town and the only school in the world named for him.
It may not be too long before Father Augustus Tolton, the first known black Roman Catholic priest in the United States, becomes St. Augustus.
“Father Tolton was a trailblazer,” said Kristie Wolfe, the principal of Tolton. “He was the country’s first African-American priest. It was difficult to do this. He was rejected by all the seminaries in his country. He faced a lot of discrimination.”
The school’s daily prayer invokes his memory. “We try to honor his legacy and tell the students about his legacy,” Wolfe said.
According to the Father Tolton Guild, he was born a slave in northeastern Missouri in 1854. At 10 years old, he and his family escaped through the Underground Railroad. His father joined the Union Army during the Civil War and later died. The remaining members of the family settled across the Mississippi River in Quincy, Illinois, where a young Augustus enrolled in a local Catholic school.
After he graduated, Tolton looked to become a priest but was rejected by seminaries in the U.S. He left for Rome in 1880, expecting to become a missionary in Africa. Ordained in 1886, he was then assigned as a missionary back in Quincy.
Tolton later became a missionary in Chicago, where he helped found St. Monica Church in 1894. He died three years later at the age of 43.
Wolfe was invited to the Sept. 29 ceremony in Chicago when the research into Tolton’s life was shipped off to the Holy See. But it may take years before any decision is made, and the final word comes from the pope.
“It doesn’t usually happen very quickly,” she said of the canonization process. “Because it’s such a unique story, I hope it’s a shorter timeline than a longer one. It would be a delight to change the name of our school.”
The process to canonize Tolton was initiated in the Diocese of Chicago in 2010. Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, wrote, “Many Catholics might not ever have heard of Fr. Augustus Tolton, but black Catholics most probably have.”
A 2012 report in the National Catholic Register said there were only an estimated 3 million self-identified black Catholics in the United States. Only 250 of 40,000 priests and only 16 of 434 bishops in the United States are black.