June 11, 2018 1
Born a slave on June 27, 1766 in Saint-Marc in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Pierre Toussaint was brought to New York City by his owners in 1787. There he eventually gained his freedom and became a noted philanthropist to the poor of the city. When Toussaint died on June 30, 1853, his saintly life moved the New Yorkers to bury him in St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral and to petition Rome to declare him Venerable as the first African-American candidate for beatification.
If we confine our search to the last two millennia, Pierre Toussaint’s cause for beatification is the oldest. Who knows whether his will be the first to succeed? For instance, the cause of Saint Martin de Porres took a mighty long time: from his death in 1639 to beatification in 1837 to canonization in 1962. Thus, imagine the soothsayers of Las Vegas trying to handicap the odds on those I am going to name.
Augustus (aka Augustine) John Tolton was born a slave on April 11, 1854 to Martha Jane Chisley and Peter Paul Tolton, both slaves from neighboring farms near Brush Creek, Missouri. Both were baptized and reared as Catholics.
When teen-aged Augustus expressed his interest in the priesthood, he was tutored privately by local priests, since U.S. Catholic colleges would not admit him. In 1878, he entered the Franciscans at Saint Francis College, now known as Quincy University, and helped found Saint Joseph School for black children.
At the age of 26, he was accepted into the College of the Propagation of the Faith Seminary in Rome in 1880, intending to be a missionary in Africa. However, after ordination in 1886, he was assigned to his home diocese in Illinois as pastor of St. Joseph, a Negro Church in Quincy. He was the first black American ordained after Irish-Americans James Augustine Haley (1854) and brothers Patrick and Alexander.
In failing health during a record heat wave, Father Augustus Tolton died July 9, 1897 at the age of 43. In 2010, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that it was introducing the cause of Father Augustus Tolton for canonization into sainthood. Although foundress Henriette Delille died in 1862, onetime Congregational Leader, Sister Sylvia Thibodeaux, said, “We told Archbishop Hannan it wasn’t until the 1960s that most people were even willing to consider Henriette’s story.”
Therefore, it was not until 1988 that the Sisters of the Holy Family’s Congregational Leader, Mother Rose de Lima Hazeur, S.S.F. – called Actor Causae (who petitions opening the cause) – formally requested Archbishop Philip Hannan of New Orleans to consider Henriette Delille for sainthood. So the Archbishop asked the Vatican for permission to open a special Archdiocesan Tribunal.
Almost a centenarian, Oblates of Providence foundress Elizabeth Clarissa Lang died in 1882, but it was not until 1991, with the approval of the Holy See, that Cardinal William Henry Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore, officially opened a formal investigation of Lange’s life to study it for her possible canonization.
Dynamic evangelist Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA (Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration) died in 1990. In February 2018, the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi stated that it was starting research on the life, writings and works of Thea Bowman. This is the preliminary step to opening her cause for canonization, but it does not officially open her cause. Sister Bowman’s is the most recent cause.
At the urging of Madeline Johnson, in Radio Ministry with the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston for decades, I sought the niche of Julia Greeley in the parade of holy blacks in our midst. Since it is not freestanding, this pericope of her life shows where she is positioned in the parade of modern black saints of the last centuries.
Born in Hannibal, Missouri – shades of Mark Twain – between 1833 and 1848, Julia as a child was blinded in her right eye by the biting whip of a cruel slavemaster who was beating her mother. Emancipated in 1865, Greeley was a domestic servant to white families in Missouri, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, but mostly near Denver where she earned the nickname Denver’s Angel of Charity.
Her prodigious works are typified by her red wagon that she pulled with a load of whatever the poor might need, imploring the well-to-do to donate dresses that young girls could attend functions. She also urged devotion to the Sacred Heart, visiting the firefighters every month with pamphlets about the Sacred Heart.
Julia’s cause for canonization was opened in December 2016 and on June 7, 2017 her mortal remains – the first layperson’s – were moved to Denver’s Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. She is new among Servants of God in waiting.
“God is love, and all who abide in love abide in God and God in them.” (1 John 4:16)