Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Book Review and So Much More

I needed a miracle. My son’s Godfather just received a year to live. For some reason, the news did not devastate me. Immediately, I had a sense of hope. I don’t know from whence it came or why I reacted such. I just had a feeling we could get a miracle.

I began a google search for a potential saint who needed a miracle for canonization. Several times my search came up with nothing current. I kept changing the words I used and hitting enter. Finally, I came upon an article from Catholic News Services dated March 12, 2010. The title was "Chicago Archdiocese begins sainthood process for first black US Priest". My friend had returned home a few weeks earlier to Chicago for his treatment. This looked promising.

I ordered the book of his life, From Slave To Priest by Caroline Hemesath. Following is a summary:

Fr. Augustine Tolton (1854-1879) was the first black American priest. His mother, Martha Jane Chisley, was taken from Kentucky to Missouri as a wedding gift for the youngest daughter of a Catholic Slave owner where she met a fellow Catholic slave of a neighboring farm, Peter Paul Tolton. They were married in Brush Creek, MO at St. Peter’s Church. The couple remained the mutual property of their owners and had three children.

During the Civil War, Peter Paul escaped to St. Louis to join the Union Army. Martha Jane escaped to Illinois a few years later with her three children, Charley, Augustine and Anne. Augustine was only seven years old. The family settled in Quincy where they learned after the end of the war of the death of Peter Paul.

Augustine was raised in Quincy where he began working as a very young child in the tobacco factories to help support his family. His older brother died at the age of ten. His youth was filled with the support of German and Irish clergy who took an interest in his education combined with a bitter resentment and hatred from many of the whites in the Catholic community. The majority of his education was from private tutoring.

At his First Communion at the age of sixteen, he felt a calling to become a priest. Then began his long journey to ordination. Even with the support of the many clergy who had taken him under wing, he was unable to gain acceptance into any American Seminary. His education continued under private tutors as the search for a seminary to accept him continued for eight years.

During this time, Augustine worked in both the Quincy factories and in the church as a custodian and alter server. He continued his education and worked as a lay apostle with his priests to establish a Catholic Mission for the black children. He was a cheerful, faithful and spiritual young man known to many in the community. Though the long wait tried his courage, he persisted in the belief that if God wanted him to be a priest, he would be one.

At the age of twenty five he was accepted into the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide in Rome with the idea that he would be a missionary to Africa. He counted these years as a Seminarian as the happiest in his life. He was ordained in 1886 and sent back to the Diocese of Quincy.

In Quincy, he first was accepted and cherished by both the white and black communities. But as he gained success, he was attacked by both white clergy and black Protestant Ministers. His work suffered and he was unable to see much fruit for his tireless labors on behalf of his people. He requested a transfer and was sent to Chicago to be the Pastor of the first black church there.

In Chicago, he worked to the point of exhaustion for a people who faced poverty, illiteracy, and racism. Through all of his trials, he remained cheerful and faithful. and deeply spiritual. He died of a heat stroke at the age of forty-three.

I have recently adopted an Ethiopian little boy just a bit younger than Fr. Tolton was when his mother stole across the Mississippi River to freedom. The desire for an African American Priest as a saintly role model is more important to me than it would have been just a few months ago.

Everything was just too uncanny: My need for a miracle, the Chicago connection, the black connection. It bothered me, no that isn’t right, it motivated me. I desperately want my miracle. I pray daily for Fr. Tolton’s intercession on behalf of my dear friend. But there was more. I wanted to help Fr. Tolton’s cause. I wanted to increase the devotion to this potential saint who our country could so desperately use; who I could use in my family as an example of holiness, dedication and charity. Thomas Jefferson once said, “In regard to the institution of slavery, indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” But God is also merciful, and He may be giving our country a heavenly advocate in the person of Augustine Tolton.

I have felt a friendship with many a saint. I hope for this kind of friendship for all my children. When I was a high school theology teacher, I had my Juniors do a saint report to prepare them for Confirmation. I told them that their sponsor was their representative on Earth, their Saint their advocate in heaven. I told them not to pick a name they liked, but to look deeper, to find a saint who held their strengths or overcame their weaknesses. I encouraged them to find a Saint to whom they felt a connection.

Why we connect with certain people and not others is hard to say. I know I have an affinity for the Irish and the Polish Saints because of my heritage. I love Joan of Arc because of her femininity (Read Twain’s Joan of Ark) and to St. Joseph because of his deep love of Mary.

My African son does not need Saints that share his skin color. I don’t need Irish and Polish saints either. But it is sure nice to have somewhat tangible things in common with those holy men and women who have gone before us. It just helps to make that connection that we all need with the Heavenly members of Christ’s Mystical Body.

I write this today because I have made a connection with Fr. Tolton. If it is God’s will, I want to do everything in my power to further his cause for Sainthood. I also want my miracle. I know they are not necessarily one in the same. I know my friend’s illness led me to Fr. Tolton. If his cure is not in God’s plan, then I will pray for another divine acknowledgement of Fr. Tolton’s sanctity. And I will ask Fr. Tolton for a different favor. I will ask that he beseech heaven for all the spiritual graces available to shower upon my friend for the remainder of his precious life on earth and that he be there to welcome his fellow Chicagoan into the light.

Fr. Tolton Prayer cards can be requested from Bishop Perry’s office at dragonese@archchicago.org, From Slave to Priest is available at barnesandnobel.com

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